Proponents argued legislation passed out of the General Assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee this afternoon will allow Connecticut and state companies to better compete in the telecommunications industry.
“If you’re going to have competition you want to ensure that’s as unfettered as possible so the customer prevails in that environment,” Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, a committee chairman, told his colleagues prior to the vote.
But buried within an Act Modernizing the State’s Telecommunications Laws (Section 14) is what one critic called a “rat” – language opening up state parks and forests to telecommunications towers:
Sec. 14. Section 23-11 of the general statutes is repealed and the following is substituted in lieu thereof (Effective July 1, 2012):
(a) The Commissioner of Energy and Environmental Protection may grant revocable licenses for public purposes to any person for the use of any portion of any state forest or state park if said commissioner finds that such purposes are not in conflict with park or forest purposes.
(b) The construction of any telecommunications tower, or any other telecommunications equipment, owned or operated by the state, any public service company or any certified telecommunications provider, or used in a cellular system, as defined in the Code of Federal Regulations Title 47, Part 22, as amended, is deemed to be a public purpose and not in conflict with park or forest purposes.
Rep. Vickie Nardello, D-Prospect, a committee chair, broke with the more industry-friendly Fonfara and voted “no.”
Nardello said there were many elements of the bill she found troubling. But Nardello specifically noted the possibility of seeing cellular towers erected in state parks and watershed land “causes me a great deal of pause.”
Fellow member Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, agreed.
“I happen to represent a district on the shoreline, home to Harkness Memorial Park, in my opinion one of the most beautiful places we have in Connecticut,” Ritter told her colleagues. “And the thought of doing this is to me very, very unfortunate.”
Rep. Terry Backer, D-Stratford, called the provision “a rat” – a term used to describe often distasteful language tucked into dense bills to avoid detection until the legislation has become law.
But Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, said there are some cases where it may be appropriate – even preferable – to locate telecommunications equipment on state land. He cited an example from a town in his rural district, Hartland
“There was a cell tower proposed at the end of a residential street and the neighbors were up in arms. But there was a location down the street with a Department of Transportation garage where everybody supported a cell tower being sited,” Witkos said. “But that garage was backed up by a state park. They couldn’t put it there because it would have encroached on park land.”
Witkos said anyone who opposes installing telecommunications equipment on state property would still have the right to make that case before the regulatory body, the Connecticut Siting Council, when such applications are filed.
“But to have a blanket restriction is not modernizing our communication laws,” he said.
The problem is many people are skeptical of the Siting Council and believe it does not have the power or the will to be able to stand up to the telecommunications industry and protect local interests and landscapes.
While Nardello maintained her opposition, ultimately other critics, including Ritter and Backer, voted “yes” after Fonfara promised to address the matter in the coming weeks before it is taken up by the full General Assembly.
“If we need to find ways to tighten the language, we will,” Fonfara said.
However Fonfara also said a balance needs to be struck between ensuring adequate communication and protecting the landscape.
“Like it or not this is how many people communicate today,” he said.
And Fonfara put in a plug for the Siting Council.
“I believe the Siting Council does a very fine job … right now,” he said.