South Algonquin abstains from vote on Rogers’ tower in Madawaska

Following a presentation by Saja Elshaikh and Chris Leggett from Spectra Point Inc., an agent of Rogers Communications apprising council of the public consultation phase in the process of securing a letter of concurrence from South Algonquin on the proposed tower at 3121A Hwy 523 in Madawaska, council ultimately decided not to move and second the motion that would have given rise to discussion and a vote on giving this letter of concurrence to Rogers to erect this tower, meaning no further action is being taken at this time and that because there was no resolution carried, there is no direction for staff at this time. However, since cell tower siting is federally regulated by ISED, the tower may still be erected in Madawaska despite the township’s objection.

Elshaikh and Leggett from Spectra Point Inc., an agent of Rogers Communications, presented an update to South Algonquin council at their meeting on March 6 about the public consultation phase of the process toward getting the cell tower approved at 3121A Hwy 523 in Madawaska and asked for a letter of concurrence from council to proceed with the siting of the tower.

Elshaikh said that the public consultation process began on Nov. 15, 2023, with an ad in the local paper, and public consultation packages were mailed out to residents within 180 metres of the proposed tower. They had an open house meeting in Madawaska on Nov. 28 and the public consultation process ended on Dec. 22, 2023. She said three people attended the open house, and they had a complaint from a neighbour to the south and two email queries from other neighbouring properties. “Some of the concerns we received during public consultation included the view from their property, proximity of the tower from the property, location selection as well as health concerns. And after responding to these inquiries, we submitted our summary to staff and requested support regarding this tower,” she says.

In response to a query from Councillor Joe Florent, Elshaikh said they haven’t received any emails or phone calls in favour of the tower and that nobody they heard from was in support of it. Councillor Sandra Collins asked why it was on private property versus Crown Land, to which Leggett replied that it was a time issue, with the towers needing to be erected by the end of 2025 to benefit from the government funding available to EORN to upgrade cell service. In response to another query by Florent, he elaborated that they chose private property over Crown Land not to avoid the environmental assessments required on Crown Lands, and that they did those environmental assessments in other situations and did not go out of their way to avoid them.

Councillor Bill Rodnick asked if the neighbours were happy with the new site of the proposed tower, to which Leggett said they were not completely happy but they did the best they could by moving it as far from the neighbours as possible, nearly ¼ of a kilometre. “But obviously this site will cover a very large area and it is quite typical with these types of applications that the silent majority remains silent. The folks that benefit from this often don’t take the time to come forward. They just expect that the service provider will provide service in their community and look forward to receiving the benefits of that service,” he says.

The erection of this cell tower in Madawaska is part of an initiative called the EORN Cell Gap Project, to expand wireless cell and Internet service in eastern Ontario to achieve access to high-speed Internet and cell service in all regions of the province, including eastern Ontario, by 2025. The total cost of this project is $213 million with both levels of government putting in $71 million each, the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus and Eastern Ontario Mayors’ Caucus putting in $10 million and the balance being covered by the private sector. Once the Cell Gap Project is finished, the area will have 99 per cent basic cell coverage, 95 per cent standard definition coverage (email, social media, web browsing), and expand high-definition video capacity (livestream video calls). With this program, 312 towers are being upgraded and 260 new towers are being put up. In Hastings County, 20 are being upgraded, while 31 will be newly constructed. The Cell Gap Project’s benefits, according to Jim Pine, EORN’s Indigenous Lead, include public safety, municipal services, upgrades to WIFI services and economic development throughout eastern Ontario.

The process of choosing a cell tower site typically takes 18 months to two years. It includes the engineers’ designs to close the gaps in cell coverage, choosing a specific location and signing a lease with the property owner, conducting a two-stage archaeological study, an environmental study, consulting with First Nations, working with municipalities regarding concurrence, and if the municipality does concur, notifying the province that the Land Use Authority (the township council) concurs with the process and move forward with the tower construction.

Through Innovation Science and Economic Development Canada, the federal government regulates the siting and construction of cell towers under the Radiocommunication Act. ISED insists that Rogers and EORN work with local municipalities to reach a satisfactory conclusion, but that ISED and the federal government make the final determination on cell tower placement. However, they prefer it be handled at the local level. ISED considers relevant concerns regarding cell tower placement to be land use planning issues and those that are not relevant are health issues, property values, and people’s opinion of Rogers.

CAO Bryan Martin explained this to council at the March 6 meeting; that they were following federal regulations as it relates to the implementation of these towers and they do not have any municipal policies or guidelines that would circumvent any changes to the federal policy. “The guideline is very clear from the federal government as to the steps that any of these tower companies must put in place as they move forward with installation of towers within the community. All that the government requires us to do is to concur that they’ve undertaken the steps which have been detailed within the guideline documents. They don’t necessarily need to have the blessing of the greater or lesser community. Its just that we are concurring that in fact they undertook to do their public consultation in accordance with the required legislative framework. That’s really where we stand on this,” he says.

Councillor Sandra Collins told The Bancroft Times the reason she did not move or second the motion on the letter of concurrence was a personal protest that they as a council had no say in the outcome of these towers. “The federal government rules this type of infrastructure expansion. I worked very hard with Spectra [Point Inc.] to relocate this tower as far away from a permanent residence as possible,” she says.

Florent told The Bancroft Times he really didn’t think it mattered whether Rogers got approval from local municipalities or not, it was just a formality and he wanted to show support for the family that will have to look at the tower every time they look outside. “This tower will not benefit the population of South Algonquin very much. Its sole purpose is to provide connectivity to travellers using Hwy 523,” he says.

The Bancroft Times reached out to Elshaikh and Leggett for comment on council’s decision, but did not receive a reply by press time.

Mayor Ethel Lavalley and CAO Bryan Martin told The Bancroft Times that no further action is being taken at this time and that because there was no resolution carried, there is no direction for staff at this time. However, since the siting of these towers is federally regulated by ISED, the tower in Madawaska may eventually be put up, despite council’s objection to it.

Michael Riley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Bancroft Times