I’m a sucker for a good cause. I’m always inspired by the film classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where an ordinary citizen fights for what he believes is right. I found a good cause at the April 24 meeting of the Utilities Commission, at which public input was sought on a proposal to improve cell phone service. The meeting was a train wreck.
The UC members are smart, caring, and technically savvy volunteers whose only interest is to make New Canaan a safer, better place to live. Yet the Commissioners, especially Chairman Tom Tesluk, were vilified by a faction intent on stopping cell tower construction in their neighborhoods. With opposition so vehement, one wondered whether expanding cell service can happen any time soon. When will we be able to respond to the urgings of New Canaan’s Police, Fire, and Volunteer Ambulance Corps, who consider improved cell service to be a public safety imperative?
This is a good cause worth fighting for. It’s why I’m running for Town Council.
I testified at the UC meeting about the aesthetics of cell towers. I showed that New Canaan’s otherwise idyllic scenery is already blanketed with several thousand utility poles festooned with hundreds of miles of ugly hanging wires and equipment. Because we need the good things the wires bring us, we accept and grow accustomed to the visual blight. We look through it, and see the beauty beyond. Will any of this change if we add a few carefully sited, camouflaged cell towers to the many thousands of utility poles already in place? I don’t think so.
Some neighbors also claimed that radiation from cell towers poses an unacceptable risk of cancer, particularly to school children. These claims should be taken very seriously, so I’ve spent a lot of time researching them.
Thousands of scientific studies have been performed on cell tower radiation, the overwhelming majority of which have found no credible evidence that cell towers cause cancer. However, a small number of alarmist studies have been “cherry-picked” to feed a cottage industry that opposes cell tower construction. Typically, these studies are not rigorously performed, use questionable statistical methods, can’t be replicated (so are scientifically invalid), fail to discuss other studies with inconsistent results, and aren’t based on a credible theory consistent with the basic laws of physics. For each study showing an adverse impact from cell tower radiation, often there are many others that attempt to replicate the results but find no adverse impact at all.
Here’s what’s not in dispute: cell towers generate at least 100 times less radiation exposure than cell phones themselves. Also, radiation exposure from cell phones is significantly greater when communicating with distant cell towers than with closer ones. So, if there are health concerns, shouldn’t they be focused on phones, not towers?
If there were a biologically plausible basis for assertions that cell towers pose a meaningful health risk, how could we justify building any towers at all? Could we even justify continuing to operate the ones we have?
In response to public input, the Utilities Commission has deferred consideration of a proposed tower site near West School. I support that decision, but I don’t see it as a concession that cell tower radiation is dangerous for children or adults. Separating schools and towers need not have a scientific rationale if it’s important to parents who feel it’s necessary to protect their children. However, we mustn’t adopt a school setback that interferes with the critically important antennae currently located on the Waveny water tower. Any new rule also must accommodate a new structure in Waveny Park, if the Town no longer is permitted to locate antennae on the water tower.
Bringing New Canaan from the current, primitive level of cell phone coverage to a modern one will be a difficult process requiring strong leadership, and proponents will be challenged at every step. But it’s a cause worth fighting for, and I’m in for the duration.
Tom Butterworth is a 26-year New Canaan resident who is running for a seat on the Town Council. He has extensive experience as a corporate lawyer and a business consultant, has worked as a financial planner, and has served on the boards of several nonprofits. He has directed and performed in many plays and musicals for the Town Players of New Canaan, and directed the 2017 Gridiron Club show.