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Lenox still has cellphone dead zones. Now, the town is seeking guidance for a master plan to fill in the gaps

Front view of The Curtis

The proposal for a cell antenna atop The Curtis in Lenox aroused strong opposition from many residents of the low-income housing facility, as well as from advocates who fear health impacts of cell towers and antennas.

LENOX — The controversial proposal to install a low-power Verizon antenna in the chimney of The Curtis subsidized housing complex — it’s the highest point downtown — remains on ice.

That’s because the Planning Board has paused its work on a new wireless communications bylaw while the town seeks a qualified firm or consultant. The aim is to analyze the town’s wireless communications needs so the board can prepare a master plan.

The Lenox Housing Authority, which operates The Curtis for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Community Development, has sidelined further discussion of an application from a Verizon developer to plug the downtown signal gap.

“It has been put on hold until the master plan that the town is working on is complete,” said Kim Graham, vice chairwoman of the housing authority. “All parties still interested. It seemed futile to us to proceed with so many unknowns.”

The big picture

The unknowns could be resolved if a firm responds to Town Hall’s formal request for proposals, currently advertised with a 3 p.m. Feb. 18 deadline.

The master plan’s goal is “to foster robust cell phone coverage and capacity throughout Lenox to meet the work-life needs of current and future residents, businesses, first responders and public works staff,” according to the request.

The plan would balance this goal with the aesthetic, historical, sociocultural and topographical/geographical conditions of Lenox, with its rural landscapes and the downtown village’s potential inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

How we got here

The town’s current wireless communications bylaw dates from 1998 and is considered outmoded. The outcome of the analysis and master plan will enable the Planning Board to complete a new bylaw.

The proposal for a cell antenna atop The Curtis aroused strong opposition from many residents of the low-income housing facility, as well as from advocates who fear health impacts of cell towers and antennas.

In response, the master plan will identify not only the sites of any new installations, but also locations with setbacks from residents, and any impact on historic and scenic views.

The Planning Board has developed the basis for a revised bylaw, but it needs details on land use — including zoning districts and setbacks — and technology, including small cell installations, to make sure that signal coverage is effective in underserved areas of the town.

What’s at stake

The master plan document clearly will explain the pros and cons of current technologies, as well as those in development, to help the community and town leaders understand the reasons for recommended wireless communications facilities types and locations.

Information will be presented at public meetings once the analysis is completed. The master plan adoption won’t require a town meeting vote, but a bylaw will.

Assuming that qualified consultants or firms respond with proposals and make it through interviews, the town aims to negotiate a contract by March 10.

Among the goals of the analysis for the master plan:

• A map and list of current wireless facilities serving portions of the town, highlighting areas of robust, intermittent, weak or nonexistent coverage and an explanation of the causes for signal gaps.

• Recommendations for how dead zones could be effectively, efficiently and economically addressed to meet current and future residential, business, first responder and municipal staff needs.

• At least three proposed coverage solutions to help guide zoning bylaw recommendations for locations to site new wireless facilities.

• Pros and cons of current, as well as developing, technologies, including how they could be combined for an understanding of recommended types of facilities and sites.

• Active involvement of residents, businesses, first responders and municipal staff in the master plan to make sure key issues and concerns are heard, documented and addressed.

• Confirm that state and federal laws align with recommendations for setbacks, heights and power of antennas, as well as technological infrastructure and innovations.

Why it matters

The Planning Board put its new bylaw proposal on hold at an Aug. 24, 2021, meeting after a series of public sessions that attracted high-voltage debate.

Pam Kueber, the board’s chairwoman, cited the town’s hills and valleys, making it difficult for the town’s only full-power cell tower, 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 downtown Church on the Hill helps some customers of that service.

If and when any application for a new facility at The Curtis or elsewhere is revived or submitted, it would be examined closely by the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Historic District Commission.

The Curtis, in the heart of the Lenox Historic District, was built as a hotel in 1829, replacing a smaller coffeehouse with rooms for stagecoach travelers that had opened in 1776. Presidents Lincoln, Grant and both Roosevelts were among the many famous guests of the hotel, which closed in 1976 and was acquired by the town three years later, for renovation as a subsidized housing facility.

Options for improving townwide reception come down to “more small towers or fewer tall towers, determining the right mix while taking into account issues involving adequate setbacks from residential developments and human activity,” Kueber has explained.

One complication: Current Federal Communications Commission regulations bar the discussion of possible cell tower health impacts when towns review applications for new facilities.

Last summer, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington ruled that the FCC must reexamine its health and safety guidelines for 5G and other wireless-based technologies.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter

@BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.

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