School site for tower floated

Notion revives wireless debate

By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / July 7, 2011

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In the midst of an increasingly intense and lengthy debate at the recent Town Meeting over the placement of new cellphone towers in North Andover, Christine Allen, chairwoman of the town’s School Committee, said she experienced an “Aha!’’ moment.

Allen was sitting on stage in the middle school auditorium with other town officials as Selectman Bill Gordon exposed a loophole in North Andover’s wireless zoning bylaw, urging voters to approve a proposed amendment calling for creation of an overlay district for new wireless antennas.

“Right now, unilaterally, the School Committee and the Board of Selectmen can decide to enter into a contract with a wireless service provider and put up cell antennas . . . without Town Meeting approval,’’ Gordon told the crowd at Town Meeting last month.

The proposed amendment ultimately failed to get the two-thirds vote needed to pass Town Meeting last month, but the debate is not over. Allen said she plans to open discussion about the possibility of placing a cellphone antenna at the high school to generate revenue for schools. Cellphone tower leases can net tens of thousands of dollars in revenue a year.

“I’m pretty serious about it, because we saw about a million and a half shortfall in the schools,’’ Allen said of budget problems, adding that she will propose that the idea be discussed by the Revenue Generating Subcommittee, possibly by late summer.

“The cell tower thing can be extremely lucrative and controversial, but I don’t want the subcommittee to be fearful of controversial items,’’ she said. “I want them to be able to talk about a lot of different things to generate revenue for the schools.’’

Allen raised the idea as Town Meeting defeated, for the second time, a wireless antenna overlay district bylaw put together by several town officials to replace the existing bylaw.

A number of courts have found the current bylaw to violate federal telecommunications law in that a required 600-foot setback from residences and schools is too prohibitive, said town attorney Tom Urbelis.

Federal telecommunications law prohibits municipalities from enforcing setbacks based on environmental or health concerns, or from preventing a cellphone carrier from putting up a tower in a particular area as long as the company can prove that it has a substantial gap in coverage and that there is no alternative available site beyond the setback.

Proponents of the existing bylaw, adopted in 2000, applaud the setbacks because they were created as a precaution against potential health effects of radio-frequency waves.

Lawsuits brought by residents and other groups in the past against the town for issuing special permits to some wireless companies have been unsuccessful, Urbelis said at Town Meeting. The courts have put the town on notice that its current wireless bylaw violates the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and that using setbacks to deny a carrier a special permit would be a “frivolous decision,’’ Urbelis told residents.

The proposed overlay, he said, would have allowed the town to maintain the 600-foot setback provision, while giving the Planning Board more control over where the companies could put their antennas.

Town planner Judith M. Tymon, who helped draft the failed overlay district bylaw, said that the town also cannot enforce the part of its existing bylaw requiring cellphone carriers to renew their permits every three years or a $300 daily fine for failure to do so, because those conditions do not comply with the telecommunications act. She said that while most carriers comply with the renewal condition, others have ignored notices to do so.

Tymon said she does not know what steps the town will take next in regard to the bylaw.

Neither does Gordon, who said that exposing the loophole that selectmen and School Committee members do not need Town Meeting approval to enter into a contract with a wireless carrier was not meant to advocate doing so. While the Board of Selectmen has not made any plans since Town Meeting to move forward with a new bylaw, Gordon said he would still like to see the current bylaw amended.

“It’s frustrating, in the sense that I think I want some of the same things the opponents do, as far as keeping [cellphone antennas] away from people,’’ he said. “I know I would not want one next to my house, but, with that goal in mind, that’s what’s frustrating about it, because our current bylaw doesn’t prevent that.’’

Thea Fournier, president of the community group North Andover Rights of Citizens, agrees that the current bylaw needs some tweaking, but said it should not be obliterated. The proposed overlay district, she argues, would have allowed antennas to be placed in more of the town than the current bylaw. Although the proposed overlay district failed to get two-thirds of the vote in two consecutive Town Meetings, it did receive a majority of votes. Fournier, who works as a nutritionist, said the reason for that is that most people do not fully understand the wireless issue and it is not something that can be taught at Town Meeting.

Fournier said she is planning to organize educational meetings in town to address the issue, which she is sure will come up again. In fact, she said, the next action could come from North Andover Rights of Citizens by way of a citizens’ petition.

“I would like to see the current bylaw maintained and the interpretation, which has been misinterpreted by our current officials, amended,’’ Fournier said. “The present bylaw that we have voted in Town Meeting in 2000 provided the 600-foot setback, and we’ve always believed it’s reasonable. We believe it’s very much in line with other towns. We also believe it’s in line with the Telecommunications Act.’’

In the meantime, she said, she is “very disheartened’’ over the potential discussion of placing a cellphone antenna atop the high school building.

“Caring for our children is paramount,’’ Fournier said. “Because there’s a potential [health risk], why would we risk this by putting an antenna in a school? They’re going to push that because they need the money. It’s about money, not morals.’’

Allen said she has already received negative feedback from some residents.

“I’m sort of jumping into the boiling water; there’s no doubt,’’ Allen said. “If my board does not support this, we will not go forward. But I want people to really weigh the pros and cons and what are you really saying no to. There shouldn’t be anything that we can’t at least talk about.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at