New Canaan needs better cell service, and better cell service means more towers.
Grace Farms Foundation spent nearly $40 million acquiring its substantial property, and will spend about another $50 million to $60 million to bring a world-class building to a property that's all about maintaining a natural, peaceful environment.
In the Wagner room of New Canaan High School, on Tuesday, Jan. 8, those two initiatives came into direct conflict with each other.
Verizon Wireless searched New Canaan for places to put a cellphone tower in the areas with poor service for the past three years , according to its representative, Kenneth Baldwin, who led Verizon's public information session about a proposed new cell tower in New Canaan.
Town-owned land at the Clark property (unrelated to the Huguette Clark property at 104 Dans Highway) in the northern part of town was ruled unusable because it comprises wetlands.
Eventually, Verizon found a homeowner, at 82 Puddin Hill Road, who was willing to lease to Verizon a substantial chunk of his property for between $1,200 and $2,500 per month, on which Verizon will erect a 125-foot tower from which cellphone signals will wash over northern New Canaan.
The owner, who according to Verizon is in the renewable energy business, stipulated that there must be a wind turbine attached to the top of the tower. In a December survey of more than 600 town residents, the town found that by a 91 percent to 8 percent margin, residents favor erecting more cellphone towers.
In the last five years the Grace Farms Foundation bought 75 acres of property in the northernmost reaches of New Canaan, to be turned into a retreat for community and worship.
It recently unveiled a $50 million to $60 million plan to construct a modernist-style building designed by the Japanese architectural firm Sanaa for the church and community center. Sanaa has won the Pritzker Award, known as the "Nobel prize of architecture."
The idea for the building, called "The River," is that it will blend into its bucolic surroundings, maintaining an environment seemingly unmolested by the outside world.
The property of 82 Puddin Hill Road is surrounded on three sides by the property of the Grace Farms Foundation.
For all intents and purposes, the industrial cell tower, so desired by most residents who responded to the town's survey, will be placed in the middle of the foundation's $100 million meadow.
"There's a safety issue for children, number one," said Sharon Prince, president of Grace Farms Foundation, "and to have a 126-foot tower in the backyard of something that is so significant for New Canaan and for the state and the country even, it would be an embarrassment."
The safety issue to which she referred is the potential effect the tower's radio radiation might have on children.
According to the state Department of Public Health, no link has been proven, and there's little evidence to support the idea that this radiation is harmful, and that, "RF exposures to cellphone users and to those living near cellphone towers are well below federal safety limits."
Baldwin made the point that Verizon would be eager to find an alternate place, but has not been able to locate one that is suitable and works environmentally, and where the owners are willing to allow a tower on their property.
"We've been looking at alternatives for three years. Boy, we've been looking for a long time. We've been working this one hard," he said.
Many in the audience, several of whom were Grace Church members, expressed their dismay at the proposed placement of the tower and voiced their displeasure.
One resident pressed the issue of using the town-owned Clark property for the site of the tower.
Verizon studied and discounted that property because of the environmental impact the tower would have on the wetlands and vernal pools there.
"That's where we wanted to put a tower, folks," First Selectman Rob Mallozzi, who attended the information session, said. "Wouldn't you think that that would be their best spot? Let's be honest. If it can't be used, it can't be used."
But resistance to the tower continued.
Michael Chen, a resident for more than 20 years and a member of Grace Church, asked if Baldwin and his team could continue looking for alternate spots in order to save the concept of the Grace Farms endeavor.
Chen said a cellphone tower would "ruin" the site, which he characterized as a place of value for the whole New Canaan community, not just for the church and its members.
Baldwin responded that he understood the concerns and his team would examine alternate locations for the tower.
"I can't promise to you that we'll find anything better, but I can promise you we'll take another look and try," he said.
Verizon is only about halfway through the 90-day delay period imposed by state statute.
After that would be a presentation to the state Siting Council, from which a decision could take up to six months, and would entail more public meetings and presentation and more input from residents.
Baldwin also said aesthetic alternatives to the traditional cellphone structure, such as a tree, clock tower or bell tower design, are all possibilities.
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