Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cell poles may be headed to neighborhood near you

Homeowners in Northampton Township are irate that the state PUC has paved the way for 25-foot poles in the easements in their yards.

Cell poles may be headed to neighborhood near you

Blog Image
Janet Swenson stands at corner of her yard in the Willow Green South development in Northampton Township, where a 25-foot cell tower is about to be installed and connected to fiber optic cable. (Bill Reed/Staff)
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Who would want a 25-foot cell pole in their yard?

Not Ed Bendzlowicz, Beth-Ann Wolfson, Janet Swenson, or several other Bucks County residents who are surprised and shocked that the black metal poles are about to be erected along their plush, green lawns.

They are demanding answers and warning unsuspecting homeowners that they could be next. Not just in Northampton Township, but around the Philadelphia area and across the state.

“This should concern everyone in Pennsylvania,” says Bendzlowicz, one of the leaders of hundreds of Northampton residents opposing the poles. “You have absolutely no say.”

The state Public Utility Commission, backed by a Bucks judge, have paved the way for a Boston-based company to install 12 metal poles in the manicured neighborhoods where above-ground utilities are prohibited.  

So, while contractors for the telecommunications company are laying 30 miles of fiberoptic cable and preparing to raise the black poles, Bendzlowicz’s hastily formed group is looking for a lawyer to seek an injunction.

“We want to get the work stopped while we see what our options are,” he said Thursday.

They may have few options, if any.

The township fought the company’s plans in Bucks County Court and lost. And the poles will stand in the 10-foot-wide, township-owned easement along the homeowners’ yards, not on their land.   

The residents are frustrated because they did not get advance notice of the plans. 

“I knew nothing about this till 10 days ago,” Wolfson said Monday. “I was simply told they would be working in the area, installing communications towers.”

And they’re baffled because they live in established developments with electric, cable and all other utility lines and pipes buried in the easement – not a pole or street light in sight. Some of them disregarded notices of the work because their deeds provide for underground utilities.

“It beats me how they’re going to put poles in a residential neighborhood when we have underground utilities,” said Swenson, who lives in the Willow Green South development.

The company, ATC Outdoor DAS, gained the rights from the PUC in 2008, when it was certified as a “competitive access provider.”

The PUC has jurisdiction over ATC as a wholesale service provider to other utilities, spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said. But it does not have jurisdiction over how the company provides the service, such as where it installs cell poles.

As of June 30, there were 93 companies like ATC providing wholesale services in the state, each with a “certificate of public convenience,” Kocher said. The certificates do not have an expiration date, but can be reviewed for complaints about service.

The certificate “gave ATC the same rights as PECO and Verizon to occupy the easements without paying rent and without being subject to local zoning laws,” Northampton manager Robert Pellegrino said Friday.

ATC presented its plans to the township and requested permits in March 2011, and was told to go before the zoning hearing board, Pellegrino said.  Instead, the company took the township to court, contending the PUC certificate exempted it from local zoning laws.

“We were the only township that challenged them,” Pellegrino said. “Warminster, Middletown, and Newtown issued the permits.”

On Jan. 5, county Judge Wallace H. Bateman ruled for ATC. Northampton’s lawyers advised that they probably would lose an appeal, and the township could be held liable for damages, so they accepted a $100,000 payment from ATC, Pellegrino said.

An ATC spokesman did not respond to phone and e-mail messages.

Meanwhile, the residents knew nothing about ATC’s plans or the lawsuit. Residents affected by zoning cases normally are notified about hearings, but there was no hearing for this project.

“They never appealed” the judge’s ruling, “and they never notified residents,” Bendzlowicz said about township officials. “There was no alternate solution. I’m concerned that the township kept it hidden.”

Swenson said she found out about the cell pole planned for her corner from a Verizon worker.

“There were lines spray painted on our lawns marking utility lines, and the township said they didn’t know why,” she said. “A Verizon worker who was in the neighborhood pointed to a white circle and told me, ‘You’re getting a pole.”

Swenson did receive ATC’s certified letter and a notice on her doorknob, both of which referred to underground work and pole installation. There was no specific mention of a pole next to her yard, she said.

Now, she is spreading the word about the poles about to be installed in her development and nearby neighborhoods.

Residents have posted signs on their lawns and comments on a Facebook page, NoCellTowers. About 100 attended a quickly organized meeting last Sunday, joined by Republican state Rep. Scott Petri.

They have contacted township officials, U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, the PUC and the Federal Communications Commission.

And they have gathered more than 500 signatures on petitions asking ATC to change the pole locations, the township to fund any legal action, and the PUC to change its ruling because it violates the deed requirement for underground utilities.

The township supervisors, meanwhile, have scheduled a special meeting 7 p. m., Tuesday, at Richboro Middle School, to present information about ATC’s system. A telecommunications lawyer will explain the complicated issues, and there will be public comment, but ATC officials declined an invitation, Pellegrino said.   

Wolfson, who has lived in the Deerfield development for 32 years, will be there.

“The minute they start digging, I won’t be able to show my house,” she said. “Who would buy it.”             

About this blog
Chris Palmer covers Bucks County for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His previous work has appeared in the New York Times and on several Times blogs, including City Room, the Local East Village and SchoolBook (which has since been taken over by WNYC). Contact him at cpalmer@phillynews.com, 610 313 8212 or on Twitter, @cs_palmer.

Ben Finley covers Bucks County for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He previously worked for The Associated Press, FactCheck.org and the Bucks County Courier Times, where he won more than a dozen journalism awards from organizations including the Education Writers Association, the Society for Features Journalism and the Pennsylvania Bar Association. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio and graduated with honors from The Ohio State University with a degree in journalism. Contact him at bfinley@phillynews.com, 610-313-8118 or on Twitter, @Ben_Finley.

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