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Christopher Ciolfi of Evolution Site Services shows the Zoning Board of Appeals maps demonstrating how a proposed cell tower would help fill coverage gaps for AT&T. The existing condition is on the top. The bottom two maps show in yellow the expanded coverage.

Williamstown Zoning Board Contemplates Cost of Denying Cell Tower Permit

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Dozens of residents in the neighborhood of a proposed cell tower have addressed the Zoning Board of Appeals asking it to block the project.
 
On Thursday evening, the board discussed what such a step might mean.
 
"If enough roadblocks are put before the petitioner, eventually the carrier says, 'Forget it,' throws their hands up and walks away from the project," ZBA Chair Andrew Hoar said. "But it is my understanding the carrier also gets a certain amount of pressure from the FCC to provide coverage in underserved areas?
 
"So, if not now, at some point, and I don't know when, the federal government steps in and says, 'There will be a tower here, and it will be this.' "
 
The applicant, Christopher Ciolfi of Pittsfield's Evolution Site Services, agreed.
 
"Unfortunately, what happens in that scenario is then the attorneys get involved," Ciolfi said. "I think this board has been very reasonable, and I enjoy working with you on this. But, unfortunately, at some point, if there is a denial, if there is not a solution, unfortunately sometimes we have to go to court. Sometimes, we'll let the judge decide.
 
"We try to provide you answers to all the questions you have and as much information as we have. You have a good consultant on board who can tell you whether we've stated accurately a substantial gap in coverage. And that's kind of the buzzword. That's where case law and federal law will come into play: Did they prove there's a need? Did they prove there's a substantial gap in coverage?
 
"And the other part of the [federal] telecom act is: Did the town make reasonable provisions for the deployment of wireless services. Right now, your bylaw is reasonable. But if we can't find a property in this part of town and every application that gets proposed gets denied, then those aren't reasonable provisions. We have to be able to build a tower somewhere in this section of town."
 
Evolution, on behalf of AT&T, has a parcel in mind and has worked with Peter Phelps to build a 165-foot tower on part of his South Williamstown farm.
 
To do so, Ciolfi's firm needs a special permit from the ZBA; part of that is a request for a variance from the town's setback requirements, an issue discussed at length the first time the board discussed the proposal.
 
That March hearing was continued to Thursday night, when the board ultimately continued it again to its May 20 meeting.
 
Cognizant of the numerous letters it has received and comments at both hearings from residents in the Woodcock and Oblong Road neighborhoods, the board spent some time Thursday talking about the limits of its discretion.
 
"We can, as a board, put constraints on the project, trying to mitigate its impacts," Hoar said. "If it turns into a legal fight with the FCC getting involved, we may not have [that authority].
 
"This board has the ability to work with the petitioner and mitigate the impacts as much as possible. If it goes out of our hands and ends up in the courts, we lose that ability, and we get what we get. And it could be a 180-foot tower because somebody says, 'That's what we need.' "
 
Rob Mathews concurred with Hoar.
 
"The worst-case scenario is not that the carrier walks away, the worst case scenario is the carrier doesn't walk away and takes the town to court," Mathews said. "It's not Massachusetts state court, it's federal court. And it isn't pretty."
 
David Levine noted that in an alternative scenario, the residents opposed to Evolution's tower could take the town and AT&T to court, perhaps alluding to a letter the board received this week from a Springfield attorney hired to represent an Oblong Road resident.
 
Most of the objection to the Evolution plan has concerned its impact on the viewshed. The town's bylaw specifies that wireless service facilities "[p]rotect the scenic, historic, environmental and natural or man-made resources of the community."
 
The ZBA has pressed Evolution to make its proposed project as short as possible while allowing for the addition of other carriers (T-Mobile, Verizon and, possibly, Dish Network, which entered the cell phone game after T-Mobile and Sprint merged last year). In the past, it also has worked with tower applicants to find the best color for the structure and on Thursday the board solicited input from neighbors about their preference for a lattice or monopole design for the Oblong Road project.
 
Earlier this month, Evolution floated balloons at the site of its proposed tower to help the members of the ZBA get a sense of how visible it would be if built.
 
"I ran into a birder on Sloan that morning that the balloon was flown," Hoar said. "We kept kind of crossing paths on Sloan Road. I thought she was looking for the balloon. I pulled up along and said, 'Are you looking for the balloon?' She said, 'Balloon?' She held up her binoculars and said, 'No, I'm birding.'
 
"I said, 'Have you seen a balloon?' And she said, 'No, can't say that I have.' "
 
Mathews said he could not see balloon from nearby Field Farm, a property of the Trustees of Reservations, which has joined the voices of opposition.
 
"I would agree with Bob [Mathews] and Andy [Hoar]," Keith Davis said. "I drove up Sloan Road to Oblong and Oblong over to Woodcock, and until I got to, basically the intersection of Oblong and Woodcock, you could not see the balloon."
 
At least one resident has raised objections to the project based on health concerns, pointing to a recent controversy in Pittsfield, where residents have complained of "cell tower sickness" from the radiation generated from a 115-foot tower on South Street.
 
On Thursday, the board was advised that it cannot cite radiation as a justification for denying the special permit.
 
"In reviewing the applications from 2011, the correspondence, particularly for the high school application, had numerous comments expressing deep concern about RF radiation and its impact on human health," said Andrew Groff, the town's zoning enforcement officer. "I should remind the board, that's not something you can take into consideration per FCC guidance and regulations."
 
The ZBA denied a special permit request from AT&T Wireless for a tower on the Mount Greylock Regional School grounds after a hearing that began in April 2011 and ended in January 2012.
 
Three years ago, the board granted a special permit to Verizon Wireless for a tower at the junction of Route 2 and U.S. 7 on the site of the former Taconic Restaurant, but Verizon never exercised that permit, which ultimately expired. That tower addressed a different coverage gap than the tower proposed by Evolution.
 
On Thursday, the board opened the continuation of the Evolution hearing without an intention to resolve the matter, knowing it would need more information for May. Among the questions remaining from Thursday: the potential impact on South Williamstown coverage if AT&T adds an array to an existing monopole near the New Ashford town line and the practicality of squeezing smaller "pizza box sized" antennae to accommodate wireless internet carriers in between the larger cell phone arrays. Ciolfi has said that as much as 10 feet is added to the height of his current plan to allow for use by wireless internet carriers down the road.
 
In addition, the town is going to re-warn the public hearing prior to May 20 to indicate Evolution may need a variance from the bylaw's provision on endangered and protected species. As discussed in March, the setback variance is needed to avoid a stand of Hitchcock's sedge; Ciolfi has been working with the commonwealth's Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to get their signoff on the project.
 
The full application with all documentation, including photos from balloon tests, is available on the town's website.

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Williamstown Answers Call to Support Firefighters

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff

Northern Berkshire EMS had personnel on scene all day Saturday at the firefighters' base of operations.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The brush fire that started on East Mountain on Friday evening produced a plume smoke that was visible throughout the town.
 
And people all over town joined the fight to put it down.
 
In addition to the call-volunteer firefighters from the Williamstown Fire District and Forest Warden and their brethren from departments throughout the region, plenty of "civilians" stepped up to do what they could to.
 
"I'm in my 19th year, and we've had a few forest fires, brush fires, and I gotta say this is probably the largest response we've had from our community as a whole," Williamstown Fire Chief Craig Pedercini said on Saturday afternoon. 
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