Public safety or public hazard? Neighbors angered by cell tower lease changes

A push to increase the size of the proposed police station cell tower, to improve public safety communication, was a hard sell for many residents who came to Monday’s Town Council meeting.

Tensions and voices rose more than a few times during what was a nearly a three-hour public hearing on the tower, to be built at Trumbull police headquarters on Edison Road. The residents who spoke against changes to the tower’s height, citing lower property values for neighbors, concerns about radiation, falling ice and more, did not sway the Town Council. Only one member of the council, District 2 Democrat Tom Christiano, voted against the lease amendment, which allows for 20 feet to be added to the tower’s monopole, and provides a larger ground area for equipment.

Residents lost their initial battle against the cell tower back in 2009, when the Town Council approved the lease with T-Mobile, and in 2012 when the Connecticut Siting Council gave its approval for a 130-foot monopole. Still, many neighbors on Monday said adding height would just lead to more safety hazards and give other cell companies a chance to use the pole, leading to more concerns about radiation. The original lease agreement was with T-Mobile, though Phoenix Partnership has since taken ownership of the tower and lease.

Police Chief Thomas Kiely, Deputy Chief Glenn Byrnes, with a representative from Northeastern Communications, said that 20 feet will lead to a huge improvement in the police, fire and EMS radio service.

Kiely said police, firefighters and EMTs often don’t know what they will find when they go on a call. A firefighter may get trapped in a burning building and need help to get out, an EMT may be on a call with a person in a mentally altered state that poses a threat to the EMT, or a police officer may find an active shooter.

“When what was supposed to be a simple call gets complicated, their only line of defense is the radio,” Kiely said. “It’s more important than a bulletproof vest or a gun.”

The police department recently underwent a $2.7-million upgrade to its communication system and will eventually be moving to centralized dispatch for all Trumbull’s emergency services. The radio system currently runs on a landline service, but adding the 20 extra feet to the monopole will allow it to be a point-to-point, wireless system. The point-to-point system is far better, according to a Northeastern Communications representative, because the police are not at the mercy of the phone company system, which can experience problems and go down in major storms or other events. Towns like Greenwich, Stamford, Milford, Bridgeport, and Stratford use the point-to-point radio system.

Deputy Chief Glenn Byrnes said areas of town do experience radio and cell phone service issues. As recently as two weeks ago, Chief Kiely attempted to call Byrnes from Trumbull Center, about a bank robbery, and had to drive a ways to find a signal, Byrnes said.

First Selectman Tim Herbst also spoke in favor of the lease amendment.

“We are not talking about a cell tower, per se, we are talking tonight about public safety and only public safety,” Herbst said.

Neighbors and union

Many neighbors disagreed with Herbst. Some said it had nothing to do with public safety, but rather allowing more cell companies to use the tower. Others argued the tower endangered their own safety.

One resident said he had no argument with the idea of improving public safety, but he had doubts about where that information was coming from, saying that Northeastern Communications doesn’t have a great track record with the town. He called for another expert to be brought in.

Kevin McGee of Koger Road said he recently drove 40 miles through Vermont with zero cell service and wondered how emergency services there communicate properly.

“We spent $2 million on a tower that’s not yet approved,” McGee said of the town’s upgrade to its dispatch system. “We made a mistake, let’s end it today.”

McGee also argued the tower posed a threat to his family’s safety, and as a community, the safety of children living near the tower should be considered.

While the majority of residents at the meeting spoke against the amendment, a couple supported it.

Darren Francis, a Trumbull resident, said he hails from rural Arkansas, where the technology infrastructure is light years ahead of Trumbull. He does not have landlines in his home and supports better cell service for the many people that have eliminated landlines.

“I’m the first person to stick a tinfoil hat on my head about things...” Francis said. “But I’ve done a lot of reading on this, and everything I see shows that holding a cell phone to your head every day is a thousand times more dangerous [than living near a cell tower].”

Those against the tower argued that the tower amendment can’t be about public safety because the police union is against it.

Robert Coppola, president of the Trumbull Police Union, said it shared similar concerns as neighbors did in 2009 and it hasn’t been convinced differently.

“The police union has not been given the information yet, though we are keeping an open mind,” Coppola told the council.

Coppola said he hasn’t personally noticed too many radio issues, though there are dead spots in town. In schools, he said officers can speak to each other in close range. He wasn’t sure they would be able to speak to headquarters while at all the schools — something that didn’t sit well with some members on the council, who were worried about school safety.

Chief Kiely noted that he tried to set up a neutral meeting with the union to share the latest communication information, but no one came.

“I’m not making this stuff up,” Kiely said of the need for the improved system. “Rob is a great detective and a great union president and we don’t always agree on this. This is one of those things — you have to make an unpopular decision for the greater good.”


District 2 Republican Cindy Penkoff said the council has been given all the technical information on the need for a higher tower.

“They did prove the need for150 feet, to make sure our entire town, or nearly our entire town is safer,” Penkoff said.

She also noted that if police wanted to build a 150-foot tower, strictly for public safety, they could do so with no need for state approvals, at the town’s expense.

Tom Christiano proposed adding a stipulation to the lease that only one cell company could use the tower, which he said would cut back on radiation concerns. His motion failed, receiving support only from District 3 Democrat Vicki Tesoro.

However, Tesoro, unlike Christiano, supported the final approval of the amendment.

“I felt compelled to vote for public safety,” she said.

Tesoro told residents they could still take concerns to the state Siting Council, which will also have to vote on the amendment.

As the council prepared to move on to other business, at around 11 p.m., some in the audience shouted their disapproval, one man yelling, “This is a farce! It’s all about money.”