LENOX — A long-overdue reboot of the town’s wireless communications bylaw is on hold as the Planning Board has decided to pause its work on the controversial topic.
The announcement by board Chairwoman Pam Kueber was relayed to the town by Select Board Chairwoman Marybeth Mitts at last week’s televised Zoom meeting.
The town planners had been wrestling with the thorny issue of whether, or where, cell antennae or towers should be sited to improve spotty reception in parts of Lenox. The town’s outdated bylaw was written 25 years ago.
The Planning Board decided to put its wireless work on the back burner until the town can complete a professional analysis of the need for enhanced signal coverage as well as a wireless master plan, Kueber said in her announcement.
The board intends to apply for money for the analysis and the plan, at the potential November town meeting. The projected cost has been estimated at about $35,000.
If and when the money is approved, the town would issue a formal request for proposals “to identify the best firm to help us with this work,” Kueber wrote in her memo. “We will have a clearer idea of the timeline to get back to bylaw work once we get the Needs Analysis and Wireless Master Plan study launched and underway.”
“Federal law and legal decisions covering wireless installations are complex,” she acknowledged. “To be sure, we have learned a tremendous amount over these past months about all the issues — and sincerely thank the citizens who have attended meetings, provided comments and offered suggestions to help.”
At multiple public meetings this summer, the board has been working with Anthony Lepore of CityScape Consultants. In his role as the company’s vice president and director of regulatory affairs, Lepore does not represent the wireless industry, but provides guidance and oversight to local governments on state and federal wireless regulatory issues.
The board’s decision to sidetrack its robust discussions on wireless issues was signaled by longtime member Kate McNulty-Vaughan at the Aug. 24 meeting.
“We’ve had a very useful discussion,” she said. “I think that the comments about timeline and town meeting, and the need for the gap analysis, give us time to sit on this one, which, I think, is probably the best thing we can do right now.”
During the meeting, Kueber noted that “we’ve talked about doing a wireless master plan that would put together all the pieces of this puzzle in a cohesive way so we could identify where we’re lacking in service capacity and coverage, where the least intrusive place is, how far can we get them [antennae] away from human activity yet still provide service and where maybe we need fill-ins and what that’s going to look like from an infrastructure standpoint.”
She cited the town’s hill-and-valley topography, which makes it difficult for the only cell tower, set behind Lenox Fit on Pittsfield Road, a mile north of downtown, to reach all neighborhoods, as well as the central business district. A low-power AT&T antenna embedded within the belfry of the Church on the Hill helps some customers of that service.
A potential Verizon lease agreement pending with the Lenox Housing Authority for an antenna within the chimney of the Curtis subsidized housing complex would not be affected by the Planning Board’s pause. If approved by the authority, which is a state agency, the proposal would be covered by the existing wireless bylaw and would be scrutinized closely by the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Historic District Commission. The authority’s next board meeting is expected in October.
Planning Board member Tom Delasco has suggested GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping to locate possible sites in town for a wireless installation that would be set back from any residences by a distance to be determined.
As Planning Board member Jim Harwood stated: “At what distance from a house do we effectively prohibit cellphone coverage and at what distance do we effectively allow it? We don’t know that answer, but it’s attainable, and all we have to do is pay for it. We need to get this information; we can’t make a responsible decision without it.”
Kueber responded that a gap analysis and master plan would resolve those questions.
Lepore, the consultant, pointed out that there is a risk involved in delaying the completion of a new bylaw. If a company submits an application for a tower or antenna, it has to be reviewed under the current town code.
According to federal telecommunications law, if a negative decision “materially inhibits the provision of wireless services,” an applicant could go to court to try to get the decision reversed.
The result, he cautioned, is that “you’ll get a piece of infrastructure you may not want, in a place you may not want it.”
The federal law states that a cell tower or antenna applicant has to verify a substantial coverage gap and then demonstrate with evidence that there is no other, less intrusive location that can plug the gap.
The legal standard, as depicted by Lepore, is that a proposed site is “the least intrusive means of solving the gap in coverage or capacity that they are trying to resolve.”
Possible health impacts of radio frequency emissions from cell installations cannot be considered by local governments when making decisions on applications or writing regulations, according to the Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Supreme Court rulings.