WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday opened a hearing on an application to erect a cell phone tower in South Williamstown.
Pittsfield's Evolution Site Services is seeking a special permit to erect a 165-foot tall, self-supported lattice tower on a parcel owned by the Phelps family neighboring the campus of the Mount Greylock Regional School.
The proposal drew objections from several residents of Oblong Road who were concerned about the impact on the view shed in the neighborhood and from the director of recreational enterprises for Field Farm, a 316-acre Trustees of Reservations property that abuts the Phelps property.
The ZBA continued Thursday's hearing to a site visit on March 24 (rain date March 31) at 9 a.m., when Evolution will conduct the balloon test called for in the town's bylaw so board members can assess the visual impact of the proposed tower. No decision on the application is expected until at least the board's April 15 meeting.
Evolution is seeking relief from a local regulation that requires cell towers to be set back from property lines by a distance equivalent to the height of the tower plus 50 feet.
The proposal before the ZBA sites the 165-foot tower 192 feet from the eastern boundary of the Phelps property -- 23 feet fewer than required under the bylaw.
"Even if there was a catastrophic failure, it would still fall on the Phelps property," Evolution principal Christopher Ciolfi told the ZBA on Thursday evening.
The board inquired about why Evolution did not avoid the need for a variance by either locating the tower 23 feet to the west or building a 23-foot shorter tower.
The first alternative would have meant the tower's base area -- which is surrounded by a 75-by-75-foot fence would have encroached into a nearby stand of Hitchcock's sedge, which is designated a Species of Special Concern by the commonwealth's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.
"We've been working with Fish and Wildlife in Boston," Ciolfi said. "We had a botanist out here five times this year and back in 2014 when we started this project. There are a few plants of this Hitchcock's sedge. … We shifted the compound, and, by doing that, we're not in the habitat area.
"We will not be harming or disturbing any of the Species of Special Concern."
Ciolfi said he had an email from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to that effect and was awaiting a letter from Boston to present to the town.
The latter alternative, a shorter tower, would have meant building a less functional tower.
Evolution has AT&T signed on as the primary user of the planned tower, but it is designed for up to four more "co-locations." Each potential user would require 8 feet of space and, preferably, 4 feet of separation between arrays. Dropping the tower by 23 feet would, essentially, eliminate two spots for co-locators.
"You potentially reduce two users and hurt AT&T's signal … that opens the possibility for a second tower [in the area] in the near future," Ciolfi said. "I did a project in Schodack, N.Y., and the town asked me to build it 10 feet taller, which doesn't usually happen, because they said, 'We don't want you coming back in a few years for a second tower.' If you start cutting the height down, especially by 23 feet, that's the risk."
Thursday's hearing brought to mind two previous cell tower proposals to come before the ZBA in the last decade -- neither of which came to fruition.
In 2011, a 190-foot cell tower was proposed on the Phelps property (also, in a separate application, for the Mount Greylock campus). The plan at the time the Phelps parcel would have sited a taller tower on a higher section of the land, a difference of about 230 feet when both terrain and tower height are factored together, ZBA Chair Andrew Hoar said.
Nearly three years ago, the board approved a cell tower proposal at the junction of Routes 2 and 7, on the property of the former Taconic Restaurant. The special permit the board issued was never used by the applicant because of issues obtaining a lease from the landowner, and the permit has expired, meaning any new plan would need to go through the permitting process again.
In both the 2011 and 2018 applications, residents raised concerns about the aesthetic impact of new cell towers. The same arguments are being raised with the current proposal.
"[T]he proposed location is situated within a landscape classified as distinctive, which is the highest classification in the 1982 Massachusetts Landscape Inventory published by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation," wrote Matthew Krumme of the Trustees of Reservations. "Field Farm is an abutter immediately to the west which has served as public open space since 1985. As COVID has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt these last 12 months, people are clamoring for safe, accessible outdoor spaces and the number of people who hike our trails at Field Farm to find comfort in nature has risen dramatically.
"But we currently have no idea of the visual impact this tower will have on the scenic vistas from the main house and trails at Field Farm, mainly because no one from AT&T or its consultants have contacted us to discuss what impacts a 165-foot tower will have on one of the most cherished views in Williamstown."
On the other hand, Hancock Road residents Patrick and Dawn Schoorlemmer wrote the board in support of Evolution's application.
"As South Williamstown residents for over 10 years, we feel that the time is long past due to address the cellular dead zones in this part of town," the Schoorlemmers wrote. "Wireless coverage is no longer a frivolous luxury; it is an indispensable tool for residents, visitors and first responders."
While the Zoning Board has the authority to enforce the local bylaw and can negotiate modifications to proposals to address visual impacts, as it did with the 2018 application, federal law favors the ability of wireless providers to site towers to provide adequate coverage.
"Here you have the intersection of federal law and the local bylaw," Community Development Director Andrew Groff told the ZBA on Thursday. "The federal law is telling you one thing, and the local bylaw is telling you another. You kind of have to look at both and weigh them against each other. The federal law preempts your state and local regulations.
"The state is telling you what criteria you have to meet for granting a variance. But at the same time, the federal Telecommunications Act is telling you that you cannot unreasonably impede a carrier's right to establish service in an underserved area."
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Does anyone know someone who has developed brain tumors or brain cancer? Were they avid cell phone users or did they live near cell towers? 5G is even worsre than 4G. Apparently, no one cares about the health of Mt. Greylock's middle school and high school children. Spoilin' views ain't the problem!
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