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With winter rapidly approaching, bringing icy roads, snow days, cars that won’t start, reruns of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and other seasonal classics, Sherman’s lack of cell phone service in the southern portion of town promises to shift from being an annoying inconvenience to becoming a downright danger. For an 8-mile stretch of Route 37, extending from the northern tip of New Fairfield to Sherman’s town center and radiating to either side of this corridor, a “dead zone” of zero cell phone service has forced residents and passers-through to manage schedules, transportation, and accidents as though locked in a bygone era.

Some scorn our society’s dependence on technology. It’s true: most lack of cell phone service is harmless. You can’t meet the bus in time to make sure your kid is picked up? You have to find a landline to have a full conversation with your sister? No big deal. But it’s a different story when you’ve gotten a flat tire with a 2-year-old in your back seat, or when your car has slid off one of the steep embankments so prevalent on either side of Route 37, and nobody can receive your call for help.

Between 2012 and 2014, 1,393 accidents and incidents were reported along this busy thoroughfare. Imagine how many more would have been reported if they had been called in via cell phone. And imagine how the emergency response would have been accelerated if the Fire Department and EMS had received the call immediately. However, the south end of Sherman remains one of the last areas in the northwestern part of Connecticut where this once unimaginable, now essential “6th sense”—the ability to communicate immediately, across vast distances—cannot be employed. It presents a huge safety issue for Sherman’s residents, visitors and passers-through.

This may be changing through the efforts of Residents for Reliable Cell Phone Service in Sherman (RRCSS). In 2014, Gail and Steve Maletz, Al Zeisler, Terri Hahn, Zoe Sochor and other concerned Sherman residents formed RRCSS to address the problem on a grass-roots level, alarmed at what was (and wasn’t) being done. Gail’s personal inspiration was when, as a teacher in the Newtown school system during the 2012 shooting, she was able to use her cell phone to let her family know she was ok. Since then, she, Steve and RRCSS have become tireless activists for this cause.

“Cell phones are part of life,” Steve Maletz stated. Beyond citing safety concerns, he also voiced the benefits of effective cell phone coverage, emphasizing that cell phone towers not only represent rental income for private residents, but also provide sites for emergency response equipment to be attached at no cost to the town. To date, Sherman’s emergency responders are dependent on radio communications.

When RRCSS convened, they noted a viable site for a cell tower, proposed by AT&T in 2013, had been quashed by a “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) backlash. The next site, conducted between AT&T and the largest landowner in southern Sherman, bogged down in negotiations, with AT&T discontinuing their search for a tower site in southern Sherman and reportedly concluding that “Sherman doesn’t want cell phone service.”

In April 2015, through an AT&T contact, RRCSS was connected with Ray Vergati, Site Development Manager of Homeland Towers, a private cell tower construction company based in Danbury.

Since then, Homeland Towers has continued negotiations with south Sherman’s largest landowner but once again these negotiations have not successfully yielded a signed lease. However, Vergati was able to scout out two private residents who were ready, willing and able to provide sites for cell phone towers in the area—one of which was referred to Vergati by RRCSS. “We’re committed to finding a comprehensive solution for Sherman, with two towers,” Vergati stated. When asked about the status of negotiations with these private residents, he said, “It’s close—maybe by the end of the year for one of the sites.” For the other resident, who wants to make sure there are no aesthetic objections to siting the tower on their land, Homeland Towers is planning to conduct a balloon float sometime in January to determine the tower’s visibility.

Much still remains to be accomplished before there is actual cell phone coverage. After leases are signed, Homeland Towers then markets the sites to the major carriers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint), then shepherds the proposals through The Connecticut Siting Council (CSC), which reviews and has final approval of the projects. Although the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission is not officially part of the approval process in new construction, any concerns raised by the town and residents are taken into consideration and included in the proposal that is brought before the CSC. As far as time frames, building a tower takes 60 to 80 days, while getting the carrier or carriers on board could take up to a couple of years. Vergati, who has been doing this for close to two decades, sums up his approach to all the challenges—from scouting terrain to the aesthetics of tower design to marketing the sites to carriers to getting proposals through CSC: “I do everything as if I live here.”

Although this collaboration with Homeland Towers has clearly yielded progress, RRCSS has continued to lobby Sherman’s Board of Selectman with more ideas, plans and requests for action. In a document presented at a 9/22 Sherman BOS meeting, RRCSS stated “we have made the case for the town’s elected officials to aggressively take steps to facilitate the installation of equipment [that would] protect the health and safety of our residents…We have also made multiple requests for action that would be best handled through the First Selectman’s office.” The document then offered 11 suggestions of actions the BOS could take, including reaching out to state representatives, joining a Regional Alliance, contacting neighboring towns to investigate their solutions, and other ideas.

At the October 27 BOS meeting First Selectman Clay Cope reported back on some of the requested items, and the Selectmen agreed to attend a November 14th meeting that RRCSS had set up with Senior Radio Frequency Engineer for Verizon, Alex Restrepo, to explore small cell coverage. The meeting revealed that the technology itself might be a long shot, but yielded some significant next steps, notably the importance of letting the carriers know the community’s need and desire for their participation. As Gail Maletz noted, “The coverage area of each individual small cell is a fraction of what a tower would provide and unlike a tower, Sherman’s emergency services equipment could not be housed. Mr. Restrepo did however assure us that he will send an engineer in the next few months to look at what might be possible.” She added, “Mr. Restrepo told us that prior to our contacting him, Sherman would not even have been considered. We are committed to researching and pursuing any and all possible sources of cell service for public safety though, and we are glad that the meeting put Sherman in Verizon’s sight.”

RRCSS’s efforts and commitment to this important safety issue in Sherman have already overcome resistance from detractors worried about whether a cell phone tower would spoil their view or adversely affect their health. The group has succeeded in getting the attention and support of town leaders and has been indefatigable in pushing for more options to be explored and more actions to be taken. However, a still-untapped resource that would yield the fastest, best outcome lies with other Sherman residents.

If you are interested in joining RRCSS’s efforts, you can do one of two things to help right away. First, offer your property as a potential cell tower site if your land is deemed appropriate for this usage, which can be determined by contacting and working with Homeland Towers (homelandtowers.us).

Second, sign the petition designed by RRCSS indicating your support for providing cell phone service in Sherman. The petition is available through a link on RRCSS’s Facebook page, or directly at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/residents-for-reliable-cell-service-in-sherman-ct. Service providers will look at the petition as an indicator of whether it works for their bottom line to provide coverage in the area.

by Alexis Mace