Woog’s World: Cell towers a controversy that won’t disappear

It’s hard to imagine life before cellphones. How did we let someone know we were running late, or that plans had changed? Did we really have to wait until we got home to conduct business, or order a pizza? These days, those “before times” seem incomprehensible.

But every technology has its drawbacks. Cell phones require cell towers. Without them, that change of plan can become garbled. The pizza order may not go through. For some folks, it’s a mere inconvenience to drive (using a hands-free phone, of course) through a dead zone. To others who live in those areas, it means spending inordinate amounts of time in parts of the house where cell service seeps through.

Cell towers are a necessary evil. They’re the modern version of utility poles and wires, which now serve cable customers as well as landlines. They’re such a part of our landscape we hardly notice them (unless we want to take a photo of the Minute Man Monument — they intrude there, no matter how clever we try to be).

To be honest, I have stopped noticing cell towers. There’s one behind fire headquarters on the Post Road; another a mile or so east near Walgreens, and a third between the Westport Weston Family YMCA and the old Red Barn restaurant. They’re big, they’re unattractive, and, after all these years, they have become just part of the landscape.

I might feel differently if there was one in my back yard. Or, more to the point, in my neighbor’s yard.

That’s what’s got some Westporters bent out of a shape. A 124-foot tall cell tower has been proposed for private property on Greens Farms Road, near its intersection with Hillspoint. The tower would boost signals in an area of town with traditionally bad service. It would stand adjacent to Interstate-95, which itself will never win a prize for handsome design.

This is not the first time a cell tower has been planned for that site. Seven years ago, a similar idea was presented. Opponents came out in force. Some of their objections were aesthetic. A “balloon test” showed how high it would tower (pun intended) over the landscape, called a bit hyperbolically “the gateway to Compo.”

More concretely, opponents said cell towers present both health risks and environmental concerns (the foundation would impact water courses flowing into a nearby pond and under 95 to Sherwood Mill Pond).

The controversy shed light on the State Siting Council, which limits local communities’ ability to affect cell tower locations. Those constraints preclude challenges based on alleged adverse effects from electromagnetic fields and radio waves. They also preempt local zoning regulations.

The cell tower was not built on Greens Farms Road. The company never followed up. If it’s possible for a 120-foot tall structure to slink away, this one did.

Now, seven years later, it’s back.

Some things have changed. With cell phones even more ubiquitous than before — and, thanks to COVID, more people working from home — many Westporters acknowledge the need for reliable service. But, because this is Westport, others are adamantly opposed.

They cite previous concerns, such as health and the environment, along with a new one: Technology is evolving, and there are smaller, less intrusive alternatives now than tall cell towers.

Another alternative — “disguising” the tower as a “tree,” like the one at the Hutchinson River Parkway service plaza just over the New York line. I’ve always found that solution a bit ludicrous. You can put all the lipstick you want on a pig. It’s still a pig.

What’s surprised me is that in the two cell tower controversies no one has trotted out that most Westport of arguments: The proposed location is on private property.

Though plenty of laws tell us what we can do with our property — with setbacks, fill and the like — for the most part, in this town we can pretty much do what we please. If I want to demolish a beautiful old (or new) home, and erect in its place one that looks wildly out of character for the neighborhood, I can.

If I decide to clear-cut my land of 70-year-old chestnut and hickory and oak trees, I can do that too. If that means my neighbor’s privacy suddenly disappears, well, that’s life. When a neighbor protests, the answer from some quarters is: If you wanted to keep those trees (or view) so much, you could have bought the property yourself.

Meanwhile, the proposed cell tower on Greens Farms Road will wend its way through the permitting process. The State Siting Council seems to trump local regulations. But this is Westport, where nothing is quick or easy. Except for making a cell call.

If, of course, you have service.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.