If this were a trial balloon, then Tuesday's "balloon test" at the site of a cell phone tower proposed on Greens Farms Road was a bust -- a least with neighbors opposing the project.
The test at 92 Greens Farms Road, near Hillspoint Road, was designed by the applicant to illustrate the impact of a structure expected to be about 120 feet tall would have on the neighborhood. And while the first weather balloon sent aloft popped in the morning wind, the next pair launched over the residential property -- at 110 feet and 150 feet, respectively -- gave neighbors a chance to see approximately where the tower stand against the skyline.
A crowd of about 40 people, mostly neighbors joined by several politicians, turned out not only to view the balloon test but also to express opposition to the project.
"No cell towers in our neighborhood!" chanted the group, waving placards with the same message at passing cars. The group also discussed strategy on how to fight the cell tower proposal.
Meanwhile, representatives of All-Points Technology Corp. of Killingworth, working on behalf of the applicant, North Atlantic Towers, LLC, a division of Florida-based Tarpon Towers, launched the red and white balloons. They then photographed the balloons from various points in a 2-mile radius of the 92 Greens Farms Road site.
The residential property is owned by owned by Pradiv Mahesh, who told the Westport News in February that he has agreed to let the tower be built on his 1.86-acre property if all the required approvals are granted.
"It'll never be 150 feet," said Michael Libertine, vice president/director of siting and permitting with All-Point. "The reason we do the 150 is for a visual marker ... We like to have that higher balloon so people can see."
"AT&T has expressed interest and they can defend 110 (feet) as their need," he said, noting that other wireless firms are also interested in renting antenna space on the tower once it's built. "Right now AT&T is the lead applicant," he said.
The plan by an independent company like North Atlantic Towers to erect the cell tower, however, is one of the aspects of the proposal that troubles neighbors.
"This is a feeding frenzy," said Paula Luciani, referring to "rogue cell tower companies" that she said are trying to get as many towers built as possible even though there arguably isn't a need.
Further, residents and local officials are concerned with the Connecticut Siting Council's authority to override local objections in granting permission for tower construction.
"The challenge, as you know, is that the Connecticut Siting Council has the opportunity to trump all other local regulations," said First Selectman Jim Marpe, who last week called for the project to be moved to a "less-intrusive" site.
"While we all want the best cell coverage we can get ... at the same time to invite a cell tower into a neighborhood that's residential is something that's of concern to me," he said. "And I think before that tower goes up we need to explore all alternatives."
Marpe said he has been in conversations with the North Atlantic Towers' lawyers, but indicated that nothing substantially could be done until a formal application is submitted by the company and the town knows what it's dealing with.
"This is obviously big business," said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport.
He said the rally underscored "how are we going to meet our needs without bringing intrusive towers into our neighborhoods."
"I'm concerned about the lack of local control of the siting of these things," said Selectman Helen Garten. "I also think ... that if people representing both parties in town agree it's a mistake and we want to support the neighbors, maybe we can have some impact on this application."
Marpe noted that a focus on aesthetic concerns will not likely sway the council, but concerns of an environmental or historical nature may.
Town Attorney Ira Bloom suggested that it would be useful to identify other locations for a tower, as well as investigate whether or not there is even a need for the tower in the first place.
"We've got to work together," Bloom said, encouraging neighbors to seek private counsel in the process.
State Rep. Kim Fawcett, D-Fairfield, was among those attending the protest and said she was able to help avoid construction of a tower in her hometown.
"We were able to successfully stop the project from going forward," she said, noting that the property owner eventually chose not to accept the company's offer of about $90,000 a year to rent the property.
"The companies come in and they offer very financially lucrative deals to private property owners," Fawcett said, explaining that families who have financial needs are not necessarily doing wrong in negotiating a deal.