A big crowd -- mostly in opposition to Verizon's request -- attends Thursday's Zoning Board of Appeals hearing.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday decided it really, really wants the Conservation Commission to hear a request from Verizon Wireless to site a cell tower in Margaret Lindley Park, even if that request is ultimately doomed to fail.
After 90 minutes of testimony in a public hearing continued from December
, the ZBA voted unanimously to require the petitioner to make a formal request to the Con Comm, which has jurisdiction over the park, located across the Taconic Trail (Route 2) from site where Verizon seeks special permits to erect a 100-foot monopole tower.
The park as an alternative was suggested by ZBA member Keith Davis at the conclusion of the Dec. 14 public hearing.
In answer to the suggestion, one longtime member of the Con Comm sent Town Hall a letter suggesting that such a proposal would be dead in the water if it was brought to the commission.
Verizon's attorney, Michael Fenton of the Springfield firm of Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, told the Zoning Board that land, like Margaret Lindley Park, that is subject to protection under Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution, is generally inaccessible for private projects like the cell tower.
"We do run into Article 97 from time to time," Fenton said. "It's always a very high burden to meet.
"It's a unanimous vote of the Con Comm, approval from the state Legislature and a two-thirds vote of town meeting. We were basing our response to the board on the strongly worded letter from a Con Comm member."
That letter from Con Comm member and former chairman Philip McKnight, an attorney by profession, was written to Town Manager Jason Hoch the day after the Dec. 14 hearing and cc'd to current Con Comm Chairman Henry Art and reads, in part:
"You were not here when the Town asked the Commission to release the Lowry and Burbank properties in order to permit the Town to create housing as a result of the Spruces flooding. That request was withdrawn by the Town after extensive hearings by the Commission permitted people to express their opinions and feelings -- and I do mean extensive. Any attempt to place a cell tower in MLP which would require Commission action and consent will result, I believe, in a pronounced and negative reaction as well on the part of the people. Please look elsewhere for a tower site."
The ZBA's Davis nevertheless argued that there was no harm in requiring Verizon to take the question to the full Con Comm at its next regularly scheduled meeting on March 8, one week before the next ZBA session.
"It's no big deal to take step 1," Davis said, alluding to the three hurdles needed to take land out of Article 97. "If [the Con Comm says] no, it's over."
ZBA member David Levine argued that the Con Comm might be amenable to allowing a tower that sits back in the woods of Margaret Lindley Park and, thereby, has less visual impact than the pole proposed at the site of the former Taconic Restaurant across the street.
Fenton was dubious.
"Respectfully, I'd submit … if that site were available and did meet all the criteria Verizon has for coverage needs, it would still be subject to a hearing here," Fenton said. "And I suspect there are neighbors who would have similar concerns about that site."
For the second straight public hearing, the ZBA heard from several residents opposed to the proposed tower at the junctions of Routes 2 and 7.
Radio frequency engineer Jay Latorre makes a point to the audience at Thursday's Zoning Board hearing.
Some of the same voices addressed the board formally from the microphone. More sat in the audience and interjected and or voiced their agreement with the points made from the podium.
Dustin Griffin reminded the ZBA of the letter signed by 55 residents objecting to the proposal.
Gail Griffin asked the board to, "Consider how much our lives and property values, as well as the town's tax base would be hurt by this desecration of our neighborhood and the town."
On the other hand, Dinny Taylor of Stone Hill Road said she applauded Verizon for trying to improve coverage in that part of town and talked about the safety issues for residents, motorists, hikers and children using the pond at Margaret Lindley Park because of the dead zones in the Route 7 corridor.
Williamstown Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Susan Briggs said that while the chamber has not formally polled its members to determine a position on the application, "I would like to applaud Verizon for coming forward and recognizing this is an area of our community that is underserved."
Verizon presented the ZBA Thursday with a proposal that has been modified in response to concerns raised at the Dec. 14 hearing and a community forum
the telecommunications company hosted prior to the hearing.
The pole and antennae as now planned would be painted forest green to help them blend into the landscape. The pole has been site further from the road, so the 100 foot tower would now be 110 feet from the property line. And the company has designed vegetative screening at the base of the tower site and bollards to protect it from runaway cars coming down the Taconic Trail.
The ZBA took two votes without making a determination on Verizon's applications for the special permits it needs to proceed with the project.
First, the board agreed unanimously on four findings of fact: first, that Verizon has demonstrated that a substantial gap in coverage exists; second, that testimony has demonstrated that the lack of coverage has a negative impact; third, that the town has an obligation to allow Verizon to fill coverage gaps in a manner appropriate to scale and keeping with the community character and "protecting the viewsheds of the area as noted by the concerns of numerous residents at the hearing" and that Verizon has demonstrated a lack of available alternative sites "other than the ones nearest in proximity to the Taconic Trail."
Davis phrased the last fact finding to allude to his next motion, which was to, once again, send Verizon back to the drawing board.
In addition to telling the petitioner again to take its request to the Con Comm, the ZBA asked Verizon to assess the impact of lowering the tower and using utility pole-mounted antennae to make up any gaps in coverage remaining due to the lower height.
"If the board felt an acceptable solution was to lower the height of the tower by 5 feet … that's something Verizon would consider," Verizon radio frequency engineer Jay Latorre told the board. "If, after that, Verizon found a coverage gap, Verizon would need to evaluate whether an additional solution would address that coverage gap … Although it might be weaker and less reliable, we might be able to ‘squeak by.' "