Citizens in 2 areas fighting cell tower

Town officials fear lawsuit by AT&T

By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / August 25, 2011

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Neighbors of two competing sites for an AT&T cell tower in Sharon are trying to persuade town officials to keep the tower out of their neighborhoods, but the local Zoning Board of Appeals has suggested it does not want to stand in the company’s way, for fear of losing a lawsuit.

Cellular companies sue and win because the federal government gives them the right to provide contiguous coverage, said Kevin McCarville, acting chairman of the zoning board.

Several Southeastern Massachusetts communities have faced legal battles over cell towers. Florida-based SBA Towers II LLC recently filed suit against the Westwood Planning Board, which denied a special permit for a 100-foot tower. In June, the town of Abington settled out of court with T-Mobile in an agreement that lowered the height of a tower from 100 to 87 feet. The city of Brockton has been sued as well.

Considering precedent, McCarville said the decision facing Sharon is not whether the community wants another tower, but whether AT&T can prove it needs one. “It’s within their right to supply contiguous coverage,’’ he said.

New Cingular Wireless PCS LLC, owned by and branded as AT&T, has proposed a 120-foot tower. The company initially approached a private landowner on Mohawk Street. Neighbors protested, and Sharon officials saw the potential to relocate the proposal to town property on East Foxboro Street, which would bring the town $30,000 a year in lease income, with small periodic increases.

The town issued a request for proposals for a tower at 411 East Foxboro St., listing two potential locations on the 28-acre public parcel. But neighbors packed a hearing Aug. 17 to decry what they said would be the tower’s detrimental effect on property values and the environment. Town well No. 6 is located on the land, some pointed out.

East Foxboro Street resident Leslie Reinherz said the water table on the property is high, and contaminants from batteries and fuel could pollute the well and drain into the Canoe River.

David Shore, another neighbor, disputed the idea that AT&T needs the site for coverage. The carrier’s online map classifies Sharon as having “best’’ coverage in some areas and “good’’ in the vicinity of the proposed tower, but radio frequency engineer Dan Goulet, consulting for AT&T, told the board that coverage is “only marginal’’ in central and eastern Sharon. Some places have coverage strong enough for callers to get a signal in their cars, but not inside their homes, he said.

Shore pointed out that the site lies outside Sharon’s Cell Tower Zoning Overlay District, but AT&T’s attorney, Edward D. Pare Jr. of Brown Rudnick in Providence, later called the district “very limited in scope.’’

AT&T still prefers Mohawk Street, but has indicated it is willing to use the town-owned land. A tower on Mohawk Street would cover a slightly larger area.

Around Massachusetts and the nation, neighbors are fighting cell towers on aesthetic grounds. Many are losing, but not all. On Aug. 4, Minnesota Public Radio reported that a Hennepin County judged ruled against AT&T in a lawsuit over a tower planned for land near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

But in that case, the tower was 450 feet high - almost four times higher than the tower proposed for Sharon. And the judge didn’t block the tower entirely, instead ruling it could stand no taller than 200 feet.

In Sharon, residents objected to the assertion by George Valentine, a Rhode Island-based real estate appraiser contracted by AT&T, that never in his career had he seen a cell tower reduce property values. McCarville said he, too, was surprised by the assertion. He recently bought a house in Cohasset, he said, and when he was looking at houses, he avoided a place where he could see a cell tower.

Drew Gallagher of Mohawk Street said he felt certain his house would lose value. “No one wants it,’’ he said.

Miguel Villanueva, an economist and East Foxboro Street resident, said the report indicates that during a period when property values were rising in Methuen, values in a selected tower area rose 2 percent less than the city as a whole. “In economic terms, that’s a loss,’’ he said.

Residents expressed disappointment that Mohawk Street and East Foxboro Street neighbors have been forced to oppose one another as each side argues against a tower on their street.

“The sad thing is it pits neighbor against neighbor,’’ said Joel Stein, who objects to the East Foxboro Street site. The town has not adequately considered other alternatives, he said.

“I’m not making a [not-in-my-backyard] argument,’’ said Stein. “I want to be clear about that. I’m making an argument that the process here was flawed.’’

Town Administrator Ben Puritz said East Foxboro Street offered the best cell coverage of the town-owned sites available, and that a consultant hired by the zoning board had verified the information.

The board plans to hear more comments when the hearing continues Oct. 12. To grant permission for a tower on the town-owned parcel, the board would have to approve a special-use permit, setback variance, and other items.

At the Board of Selectmen’s request, Town Meeting approved a change in use for the property in the spring, adding “general municipal purposes’’ so a cell tower would be allowed. Previously, the land was designated for a well.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at