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Lawsuit settled over cell towers in Dewey Beach

An agreement is reached in a lawsuit over new cell towers installed in Dewey Beach that sparked outrage from residents.

Dewey Beach has been fighting cell phone companies for months now to ensure new 5G cell towers don’t ruin the aesthetic of the beach resort.

And a few residents took the fight into their own hands last June, suing Verizon over five towers placed right on the beachfront without prior knowledge of city officials.

The two parties agreed to settle the lawsuit, with Verizon choosing to move the poles away from the beach — some almost 300 feet back, others only moving less than 20 feet away.

The settlement also states Delaware taxpayers will pay for the move. As part of negotiations, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) set aside a little under $400 thousand from the state’s capital fund to move the towers.

Dewey Beach resident Alex Pires was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He says Verizon will now need to go to the town for approval to move the poles, but adds both sides are motivated to come to an agreement.

“Verizon needs four or five more poles,” Pires said. “And they can’t get them without the town. And the town obviously wants to have service. And they also wanna take advantage of the fact that the money is sitting there and they can get this paid for.”

Pires says the money is meant to ensure the process moves smoothly. But Dewey Beach Commissioner Paul Bauer says he’d like to see Verizon take some responsibility.

“At the end of the day I wanna see those poles moved and I’m glad that Dewey Beach isn’t paying for it — but I’m hoping Verizon pays for it and the state taxpayers don’t have to pay for it. But we have to work through that with the carriers,”said Bauer.

Bauer suggests there’s probably a middle ground on who bears the cost, as the state does bear some culpability for allowing the poles to be installed without first consulting with the town.

And town manager Bill Zolper agrees with Bauer, saying Delaware taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for the move.

Zolper was an observer at the talks about where the towers should be moved to as part of the settlement, so the city isn’t coming into the approval process blind. He says it’ll be helpful when the commissioners look at the application Verizon submits.

Verizon will need to submit an application to move the towers just like any other company, through anew ordinance commissioners approved in early December. Zolper says the proposed new sites for the towers are just that, proposals. The town has yet to approve or agree on any locations yet.

Zolper says there’s a list of ways the city would prefer cell towers to be installed, and companies will need to run down that list. More back and forth between the cell phone companies and the city’s wireless consultant, CTC, could mean a longer approval time.

First, a tower on the median of Route 1 would be best. Then the company needs to talk to nearby commercial properties to see if placing the wireless cell on the roof would be allowed. If they can prove the commercial properties wouldn’t allow it, or that approach isn’t viable, then co-locating the wireless tower on an existing Delmarva Power pole would be the next option.

Zolper says finally, if none of those options are viable, then the town will consider the installation of a new cell tower. But he says commissioners would like to avoid new poles at all costs.

Zolper adds once companies start to become more familiar with the process outlined by the town, it’ll be easier and faster to get towers approved. For example, a company could provide evidence ahead of time that the first two options aren’t viable and skip the back and forth.

He says all the applications and proposed locations will be available to the public on a web portal the town is currently building. Residents will also be able to provide public input on the proposed locations.

So far, since the city first enacted a permitting ordinance back in March, no new towers have been approved in the town. These proposed tower moves from Verizon could be the first ones to go through the process.

Commissioners will be meeting for their monthly meeting on December 17th, where Bauer says the permitting process for these Verizon poles could begin.

According to the settlement, once approved by the town, Verizon will have 90 days to move the poles. Bauer expects the poles to be moved before Memorial Day, the start of tourist season.

Roman Battaglia is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Roman Battaglia grew up in Portland, Ore, and now reports for Delaware Public Media as a Report For America corps member. He focuses on politics, elections and legislation activity at the local, county and state levels.
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