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Chestnut Hill neighbors try to solve own Internet problem

MONTAGUE — A group of Chestnut Hill Loop residents think they have a solution to their lack of high-speed Internet service and a closing window to take advantage of that solution.

Chestnut Hill Loop is one of three islands of poor access in town, and as Internet continues to take an increasing role in everyday life and business, the plan is to treat it as a utility and form a neighborhood betterment district, take out a loan and connect to neighboring Leverett’s burgeoning fiber-optic network.

A group of about 20 residents showed up at Town Hall on Monday to discuss those plans with the Board of Selectmen, but were accidentally diverted to a waiting room and missed the meeting. Notices posted asking people attending closed executive sessions at the end of the meeting to wait downstairs were not clearly worded, and residents waited downstairs until after the hearing was closed. Town Planner Walter Ramsey, who found the group while looking for the executive session attendees, said it would have been a violation of the open meeting law to re-open the hearing. “There was no ill-intent behind it, it was just a weird scheduling thing,” Ramsey said.

Kevin Hart, a resident of Chestnut Hill Loop off-shoot Richardson Road said the neighborhood group is on the agenda for a special meeting Monday at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall.

Hart said he pays for satellite Internet service, and it is both very expensive and very slow, useless when he has tried to work from home, and he has two kids who will be beginning school in the near future and will need Internet access.

“We’re not asking for the town or state to pay for us, we’re just asking for a mechanism to pay for ourselves,” Hart said. The idea is that the neighborhood — encompassing Chestnut Hill Loop, West Chestnut Hill Road, East Chestnut Hill Road, Ripley Road and Spaulding Brook Road — would incorporate as a betterment district, take out a loan to pay for the infrastructure and pay it off through a tax specific to their neighborhood over the next 10 or 20 years. Hart calculates that it should take two to three years, likely less, for the service to pay for itself in lowered Internet bills.

Unfortunately, the concept of a betterment district was created before broadband, and that’s not on the list of things you can create a district for.

State Rep. Stephen Kulik has introduced language that would allow this for them, but wouldn’t change the rules statewide.

Nevertheless, Hart said the neighborhood effort could serve as a template for other under-served areas in the state and in town, where there are at least two other significantly underserved patches: a section of the Industrial Park and the Taylor Hill area. Montague isn’t likely to benefit from state-supported “last mile” Internet network build-out because the town is somewhere in the region of 70 to 97 percent served, between Hart and Ramsey’s estimates.

What the neighborhood group wants from the Board of Selectmen is help getting the ball rolling in terms of the town process, whatever that might be.

“We want to get a head start on what needs to happen to form a betterment district, there are crews already in Leverett,” Hart said. “Time is of the essence.”

Hart said Leverett invited the connection, and more crews in the area than usual means the neighborhood should get more competition for their bid and a better price. That window should close in less than a year.

Hart, who designs telephone and ethernet networks for businesses, estimates the cost at $250,000, based on what Leverett is paying, although a formal study is needed.

The effort has been underway for almost three years.

Lisa Enzer, one of the leading organizers, said she like many in the neighborhood moved in before the Internet was even a glimmer of an idea. Now it’s so widely used in everyday life that it affects property values.

“This is a very important issue and we don’t really have any recourse but to work through the town, at least that’s my understanding,” Enzer said.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

(Editor's note: Some information in this story has changed from an earlier edition)

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