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A proposed bylaw regulating wireless facilities in Lenox has prompted vigorous opposition. Will these concessions win enough votes?

LENOX TOWN HALL

Lenox Planning Board members are hoping recent tweaks to a controversial wireless communications facilities bylaw will be enough to win approval for the measure at a special town meeting Dec. 8.

LENOX — Facing persistent and intense opposition to a proposed wireless facility bylaw, Planning Board members have added several sweeteners to the measure in hopes of getting it through next week.

More than 75 residents attended, either in person or via Zoom, the final public hearing on Tuesday — a nearly five-hour marathon — and nearly all public speakers expressed varying degrees of hostility toward the proposal.

“I’m really concerned that this bylaw is not going to pass,” board member Susan Lyman said in an effort to find some common ground. "Sometimes there has to be some kind of give and take or compromise.”

The wireless communications facility zoning bylaw requires a two-thirds supermajority for approval at the special town meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. Dec. 8 in the Duffin Theatre at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

For a wireless zoning bylaw, fierce debate continues ahead of a town meeting vote. At stake: Widespread signal gaps in parts of Lenox.

The measure is aimed at clearing the way for improved cellphone reception in town, which has significant gaps. But opponents have cited what they view as health and safety hazards of towers and other facilities in residential zones.

Among the concessions from the board Tuesday was a suggestion by downtown property owner Jason Berger, a member of the Historic District Commission, that any new small-scale wireless installation such an antenna on an existing structure that is not a tower must be set back at least 100 feet from the property line of the nearest residential dwelling. 

In addition to supporting Berger’s suggestion, the board also approved the following revisions:

• Wireless facility installations will not be permitted on multifamily subsidized housing of more than 20 units, such as the 64-unit Curtis apartment complex downtown.

• Wireless installations must be set back at least 1,000 feet from public and private school buildings.

The centerpiece of the bylaw requires that before any new tower is proposed in a residential district, the applicant must demonstrate that it is not possible to locate the structure in the commercial or industrial zones, or on municipal facilities.

New free-standing towers would require a minimum setback distance of 250 feet from the nearest residential property line.

During 90 minutes of public comment, opponents teed off on the proposal, and the board.

“To hell with the federal government for letting the telecom industry write its own law,” said bylaw opponent Amy Judd. She asserted that the board “had wasted our money on your consultant who used telecom industry scare tactics to get you to write a bylaw that only favored the telecom industry and offered no protection for people’s health, including schools and residential properties that house the elderly.”

Critics of the bylaw also described the minimum 250-foot setback for towers from the property line of residences as inadequate. Several speakers suggested a quarter-mile distance, which would rule out any new cell towers in the town.

Bylaw supporter Susan Wolf of Lenox Dale commended the proposal, asserting that it would make reliable cell service available throughout the town, and make life safer for everyone.

“I think the bylaw is a good compromise, considering the strong feelings on both sides,” she said.

The overall goal of the zoning bylaw is “to allow the town to say ‘yes’ to new wireless infrastructure as suitable — with tools to carefully review and say ‘no’ as needed, compliant with federal law,” Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller said at the outset of the meeting.

A 100-mile “test drive” last May by the town’s consultant, David Maxson of Isotrope LLC, demonstrated widespread signal gaps and inadequate coverage in many sectors of Lenox.

The bylaw seeks to meet the growing need and demand for wireless communications services while minimizing the impact of facilities on surrounding land through standards for location.

Among other goals:

• Placing facilities on existing structures in order to reduce visual, aesthetic and public safety impacts, or effects on the natural environment and wildlife.

• Protecting the character of the town while meeting the needs of citizens for wireless communications services.

• Special permits from the Zoning Board of Appeals required for facilities in most residential zones as well as commercial and industrial locations. But new towers are prohibited in the larger-acreage residential zones and the commercial districts.

• Locating new facilities on residential buildings in all districts is strongly discouraged.

• Operators of approved installations must demonstrate that they comply with federal regulations for the safety of radio frequency emissions from the site, as demonstrated by field surveys or calculations.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@berkshireeagle.com.

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