​Response to Lake Cheston Cell Tower Site

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

During the community discussion about the proposed Lake Cheston cell tower site, two points of general agreement surfaced: one, the need for improved cell phone service in Sewanee; two, approval for locating a cell tower near the former dump/convenience center adjacent the golf course.

The discussion followed a demonstration at Lake Cheston where a drone illustrated the proposed tower’s height. Eric Hartman, director of risk management and University liaison for the project, fielded questions and offered insight.

Documenting the need for better cell phone service, community members said inadequate and unreliable service from AT&T impeded law enforcement and interaction with health care providers. From the University’s perspective, Hartman acknowledged poor cell service hampered recruiting students and attracting visitors. William Shealy, University superintendent of landscape planning & operations, added that most contractors employed by the University had no cell service in Sewanee.

“Verizon is the primary provider in the country,” Hartman said. Asked if a repeater tower could be used to transmit the signal from the Verizon tower in Monteagle, Hartman explained the decreased signal strength would not penetrate stone buildings in Sewanee.

Resident Bob Benson objected to the aesthetic impact of a 240-foot lit tower at the Lake Cheston site, arguing the University spent large sums refurbishing Lake Cheston. Benson noted his home and two other residences were within 600 feet of the site, with dormitories only 1,000 feet away and Emerald Hodgson Hospital, likewise, nearby.

“Cell towers haven’t been around long enough to determine the long-term health effects,” Benson said. He proposed an antenna on a building to solve the cell service problem.

Hartman noted that due to the stone buildings, several antennae would be needed for adequate propagation community wide, and Verizon objected to the multiple-antennae expense.

Reiterating concerns about the 290-foot lit water tower site proposed in September, Hartman said, the community objected to the height and wanted the tower better hidden in the topography.

“The water tower site is as far out as Verizon wants to go,” Hartman stressed. With distance, the signal strength decreases, limiting propagation.

Under the current strategy, the University is identifying potential locations and presenting them to Verizon to review for propagation suitability.

Locations rejected for inadequate propagation due to height restrictions and other issues include sites near the Facilities Management building, the Tennessee Williams Center, and the McCrady and Ayres parking lots.

Former Domain Manager Richard Winslow noted a tower was erected in 2006 at the site of the former landfill and convenience center adjacent to the golf course. Verizon rejected the site when a core sample showed evidence of the toxic chemical benzene.

The low-visibility tower, less than 200 feet tall and thus unlit, was removed. Winslow suggested Verizon consider a nearby location which might not pose the same environmental issues. Many community members attending voiced support for a site near the former landfill.

Hartman said he would propose the site to Verizon, but stressed Verizon refused to reconsider the landfill site. “I’m not optimistic.”

Asked if the University was willing to help fund a multiple-antennae solution, Hartman said, “We’re trying to find a partner. We’re not investing in the project.”

Hartman said there was not an active contract with partnering entities Vogue Towers, who would erect the structure, and Verizon who would provide the equipment and service. For propagation reasons, Verizon still preferred the football field site objected to by the State Historic Preservation office. The University chose not to challenge the ruling. “Most people push through regulatory issues, but we didn’t want to do that.”

Questioned about the internet service from Ben Lomand improving cell phone service, Harman said it would facilitate Wi-Fi calling from within people’s homes, but not outside them.

“My hope is to have a cell tower by the end of 2020,” he said.