An international company has stepped into Northampton and they're bringing big changes with them.
The American Tower Corporation (ATC) is an "independent owner and operator of wireless and broadcast communication sites," according to its website. After a legal battle with the township, ATC has been granted permission to update or install 59 new towers in the area. And, officials said, there's nothing else that can be done to stop them.
How it began
Last year, ATC came to the township requesting to install Distributed Antenna System (DAS) towers to improve telecommunication conditions in the area. A DAS tower connects to fiber optic cables that wireless service providers and other companies can then rent space on to provide better coverage.
The township decided that ATC was not allowed to install the towers it requested because they did not fit into the right-of-way ordinance, which allows for utilities to be placed along public streets and other areas of easement.
ATC sued the township in late 2011 and on Jan. 5, 2012, Judge Wallace Bateman decided in ATC's favor due to a certificate of approval it received from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) in 2008. The PUC's recognition allows the company to install the systems and equates its status to that of a utility, Township Solicitor Michael Savona said.
"We did believe we had a valiant case," Township Manager Bob Pellegrino said.
The township decided not to appeal the decision – partly because supervisors were advised they would lose and partly because ATC agreed to pay the township's previous legal fees. That allowed ATC to move ahead with a time-specific agreement it had previously made with T-Mobile, Savona said.
It seemed like the best way to resolve a bad situation, township officials agreed, until residents started finding white circles on their lawns and paper hangers on their doors.
Building in a no-pole zone
Janet Swenson became aware of something going on when she found a spray-painted circle on her lawn on April 5 and inquired about it to a Verizon worker in her neighborhood.
He didn't know anything about it – it was not his project – but he knew what it indicated: a pole was going in there, Swenson said.
She called the township, who put her through a series of connections where she finally confirmed the pole with ATC headquarters in North Carolina. All of this before she received notice at her own home. Swenson's neighborhood, Willow Greene South, is supposed to prohibit poles, lights and sidewalks by deed, she said.
Twelve days after she noticed the circle on her lawn, Swenson received a letter from ATC verifying the company would be "upgrading and/or adding utility poles as necessary" to "enhance wireless services reception and data speeds."
Her communication with company and township officials informed her that the new poles are a done deal; the battle had been fought and they had no further control.
Of the 59 poles being constructed or updated in Northampton, 12 are brand new steel poles in residential areas where there are no other towers of their kind.
Many of those residents are opposed to the towers going in because of health and property value concerns.
"How utterly disappointed I am with my township, its supervisors and all others who have chosen to keep the residents in the dark as to what is going on," Swenson said. "My property value will decrease, my health may be impacted, my pristine yard will be marred and if this ATC company can get free rein in our neighborhood, who or what is next?"
However, the Federal Communications Act of 1996 states in 332(c)(7)(B)(iv) that no state or local government body can regulate poles based on "the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the Commission's regulations concerning such emissions."
Resident Ed Tucker pointed out, to the supervisors agreed with him, "You wouldn't want a pole sitting out front of your door."
He also asked if there was something that could be done to the poles going in, like attaching light fixtures to make them more useful to neighborhood residents. Chairman Frank Rothermel agreed it was a good idea and worth looking into.
"I think that we can stop it," Holland resident Len Dubas said. "I think we can be precedent for other people around the country that don't want these people."
Residents said the township still should've given them the opportunity to join the fight.
"I really think that some more thought should've been put into this before you settled," Holland resident Mike Hughes said. "You should've notified the community and notified the residents. You did it to us. You kept us in the dark on this."
Supervisor Eileen Silver said she didn't find out that residents were upset about it until it was too late.
"The lack of transparency on this project by the township is truly disturbing," Swenson said.
To find out where the poles are going in, visit www.americantower.com and type in your zip code.