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Cell Phone Towers

03/01/02 12:00AM By Tom Slayton

In spite of all the change it has endured, Vermont remains a real place -- one that feels unique and different from the rest of the world. Our 19th century isolation has ended, but we still treasure our life apart from the rest of the world.

Those of us who live here know that life here can be just as hectic and crazy as life anywhere. Yet even for us, it is in the special moments, times when we are alone on a hillside with snow falling all around, or walking on a mountain top, or pitching hay with a farmer friend -- that we congratulate ourselves once again on our chosen home, click our size 13 work boots together and say three times "There's no place like Vermont!"

However, the sense of place we are celebrating in such moments is fragile. Even small changes can erode it over time. And that's why the current pressure for more and more cell-phone towers represents a threat.

Granted those towers also represent a new service - uninterrupted cell-phone service that people in the modern world say is a necessity. But this is progress packaged in a Pandora's Box of high-impact technology, and we need to be wary of it. Like other technologicial advances, it can destroy the things we love most about Vermont, even as it makes our lives more convenient.

The special series on cell phone towers broadcast this week by VPR pointed out that more than 200 new high-frequency transmitters are already scheduled to come to Vermont. And you can bet that more transmitters and more towers will be coming as the 21st century communications revolution continues and makes its way into these Green Mountains. Now there are even real estate companies specializing in acquiring hilltop sites for future towers.

The visual message conveyed by cell phone towers is that Vermont is an integral part of the new switched-on, up-to-date, contemporary electronic world -- and that is precisely the message that will destroy the vision of Vermont as a remote and rural haven.

Vermont's sense of place is fragile, and can be shattered by the eruption of electronic gadgetry atop hilltop after hilltop. And sense of place is not only the major attraction that our tourist industry has to sell to outsiders. As I said before, it's a big part of what makes Vermont a special place for those of us who live here.

Federal communications law says local towns can regulate where the towers go and how they look. And that's where towns like Brookfield, which wisely instituted a cell phone ordinance some time ago, have an advantage. Brookfield got a big tower reduced in size and impact because the town had its own planning ordinance when the tower-builders came knocking.

Perhaps the new push for cell towers will encourage towns to take legal steps that allow them to have some control over where these big new towers will go.

Here's hoping Vermont's local Davids can triumph over this latest Goliath. The beauty of our state in years to come depends upon their ability to do so.

--Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.

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