Balancing Progress and Preservation

by Tom Butterworth

This Op-Ed ran in the New Canaan Advertiser and other local media during the week of October 9.  The assignment was to “make my case” for the voters.  

I have two principal goals for my service on the Town Council:  First, to preserve the qualities that have earned New Canaan recognition as a great place to live and educate our children.  Second, to make progress in critical areas like cell service, commuter parking, and the efficient utilization of town buildings. We can balance preservation and progress. We can achieve both.

My wife Libby and I restored the oldest house in New Canaan, adding modern amenities while preserving centuries-old architecture.   I propose a similar approach for New Canaan: modernize to enhance our quality of life, while preserving the Town’s values and historic charm.  Here are some specifics:

First, cell service should be expanded to improve safety, convenience and productivity with minimal aesthetic impact.   Stealth monopoles are less jarring visually than the thousands of utility poles and hanging wires with which we already live.  No credible health risks from cell towers have been verified by any of the world’s major health organizations after reviewing the results of thousands of scientific studies.

We should aggressively pursue the recommendation of the Utilities Commission to build a tower–possibly configured as a flagpole–in Irwin Park.  At the same time, we should use every available legal strategy to prevent the removal of emergency service and cell phone antennae on the Waveny water tower; failing that, we should build a replacement tower nearby. These steps will be resisted by the “anywhere but here” crowd, but it’s the least we can do for the tens of thousands of residents and visitors whose safety and convenience must be our first priority.

Second, we should build an aesthetically pleasing parking structure adjacent to the train station, setting user fees at levels sufficient to cover all of the costs.  Currently, the “lumberyard” lot is an underutilized Town asset, and we are duty-bound to put it to a more productive use.   Of course, a transition plan must be devised to minimize the impact on current permit-holders during construction.

Third, we need to control spending and limit tax increases, without reducing the quality of our schools or other necessary services.   This should involve the changes in the budgeting process that I listed in last week’s Advertiser.

Finally, we should make productive use of all Town-owned buildings.  About 20% of our space isn’t currently used, according to the Building Evaluation and Use Committee.   Significant long-term cost savings can result from divesting buildings that have less historical significance and higher maintenance costs than others, and by relocating some Town employees to buildings we retain.

As a lawyer, a member of a management team within a large international consulting firm, and as a leader of several volunteer organizations, I have been involved in managing costs and balancing priorities for 40 years.  I know it can be done successfully for the Town of New Canaan, while preserving the qualities that make us great.

My Family and Career

Libby and Tom

My wife Libby and I blended our families in 1981, and two years later chose New Canaan as the ideal place to raise our five children together.   These were the best decisions we have ever made.  Our five children are now happy, successful adults, and our seven grandchildren are thriving.

I joined Hewitt Associates where, as a partner, I helped Fortune 500 companies develop strategies for their employee benefit plans.  I developed that expertise while practicing law with Skadden, Arps in New York City and later with Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, DC.  After retiring from Hewitt, I became a financial planner and principal with HTG Investment Advisors in New Canaan.  I fully retired in 2006.

For my “second career,” I performed in dozens of plays and musicals with the Town Players of New Canaan and other theatres in the area.  I served on the Town Players Board of Trustees, and directed several TPNC stage productions.  In 2017, I directed and appeared in the 2017 Gridiron Show.

I served as a Chapter Chairman for the American Red Cross, and was President of New Canaan’s Pop Warner youth football program.  I am an active member of the Rotary Club.  For the past three years, my wife Libby and I hosted the New Canaan Beautification League’s assembly of the town’s hanging flower baskets, of which there were 217 in 2017.

Libby and I restored the oldest house in New Canaan, at 453 Carter Street, for which we have been recognized by the New Canaan Preservation Alliance and New Canaan Historical Society.  Our home was featured on the Newcomers’ Holiday House Tour.   Recently, we moved to another antique home closer to town.

I was awarded a B.A. from the University of Missouri at Kansas City in 1968, and a J.D. from the St. John’s University School of Law in 1977.  I successfully completed the Certified Financial Planner program at Fairfield University, and passed the CFP exam in 2005.

My strongest credential is my love for New Canaan.  After our children moved away to distant locales, Libby and I also tried living in other places.   We tried Rowayton, and we tried Seattle, but after eight years we realized that there was only one place we’d be happy.  So we returned to New Canaan in 2011, purchasing the same home we had sold eight years earlier, and now see no reason why we would ever leave again.



Why I’m Running For Town Council

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.