LENOX — During the recent epic snowstorm, some residents who lost power were cut off from the outside world. That’s because of widespread cellphone service gaps, especially since many people have cut the cord on landline phone service.
Coincidentally, town planners completed work on an updated personal wireless zoning bylaw designed to help plug those signal gaps and to ensure local control of any sites proposed for new facilities. But deeply entrenched opposition by some residents to new wireless antennas or towers promises an equally challenging battle for public opinion ahead of the May 4 annual town meeting. A two-thirds supermajority is needed for approval.
At Wednesday’s Select Board meeting, member Marybeth Mitts strongly endorsed the personal wireless services facilities bylaw. It’s similar to the version that attracted support from 63 percent of town meeting voters last December.
Residents voted 251-147 for the bylaw, but 266 “yes” votes were required.
The Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the reworked version at 6 p.m. April 4 in Town Hall.
The bylaw prohibits facilities on or near subsidized multifamily structures of 20 units or more, such as the Curtis housing complex at 6 Main St. and Turnure Terrace on Old Stockbridge Road.
Some other key points:
• Ideally, a new facility must be located on an existing non-residential structure to minimize its impact on the community.
• The preferred locations for a new tower are along commercial and industrial corridors or in suitable municipal locations or other semi-public sites.
• Remote locations on largely undeveloped areas may be acceptable for a new tower that is generally not visible to the public.
• A new tower should be located as far from residential lot lines as possible to avoid detrimental visual impacts and adverse effects on property values and to preserve the privacy of adjoining properties.
“We need people to turn out at the town meeting on May 4 for that vote again,” said Mitts.
“I’ll be very up front in stating that the objective of this particular bylaw is to provide better cell service for everyone, as well as restoring local control to the zoning board for where any cell antenna would be placed in the town.”
She emphasized that the Zoning Board of Appeals would review any application from a wireless facility company.
“It’s an excellent new bylaw, providing more safety for the town than the current bylaw which puts us at risk,” Mitts commented. “The new bylaw will provide a framework for any application to be evaluated by the town.”
Earlier at the same meeting, bylaw opponent Courtney Gilardi told board members that she lost her Pittsfield home — adjacent to a new Verizon tower off South Street — because of the lack of a “protective wireless zoning bylaw” in the city.
Citing updates to Pittsfield’s bylaw, Gilardi stated, “I would hope Lenox would also want to learn from those changes to put the best, most durable, most protective bylaw forward to the town.”
She called for “unity” between opponents and town leaders, asserting that instead of celebrating the defeat of the Lenox bylaw last December, “I was actually sitting there crying, because we should have gotten a bylaw passed by working together.”
Gilardi and other opponents have called for presentations by independent attorneys, doctors and others to no avail, she said.
She also complained that the Planning Board has declined to take public comments at every meeting.
“The legal landscape is changing with all this wireless deployment, and Lenox deserves nothing but the best, to get it right and to get a bylaw passed,” she declared.
School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan pointed out that taking public comment is at the discretion of board and committee chairs.
Citing a recent Eagle letter to the editor contending that “democracy in Lenox is woefully in trouble,” Vaughan said, “I don’t believe that at all.”
Selectman Neal Maxymillian echoed Vaughan’s point, calling it “well-put and something I was going to mention.” Any elected board is not required to have an open public comment period, he pointed out, citing the state’s open meeting law.
Requirements include alerting the public to upcoming meetings and posting minutes, he noted, as well as holding a legally required public hearing ahead of a bylaw proposal allowing anyone to comment.
But bylaw opponent Diane Sheldon voiced “concern about town residents’ ability to speak” at Planning Board meetings. “Our questions have never really been answered,” she said. “In a town that is so politically aware that something as basic as democratic rights would be respected and regarded, it seems to be a real problem.”
In response, Planning Board member Kathleen McNulty Vaughan asserted that voluminous material and comments submitted by opponents have been closely examined.
“The Planning Board and town staff take transparency and maintaining democracy seriously — it is why many choose to serve their community in local government,” said Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller in a message to The Eagle. “I question the claims that democracy is not in good health in Lenox, and wonder if these claims would be made if the zoning bylaw being brought to Town Meeting mirrored what certain detractors and concerned citizens wished it did.”
Tuesday night’s Planning Board meeting spent extensive time reviewing proposed changes to the bylaw submitted by Gilardi.
Board member Pam Kueber described the planners’ bylaw as “laser-focused” on giving the Zoning Board of Appeals close, rigorous scrutiny of every personal wireless facility application. The goal is to ensure tight local control of locations for proposed sites, she said.
The planners will seek a formal vote of support from the Select Board at that board’s 6 p.m. March 29 meeting in Town Hall.