OTIS — Land on an Otis hillside will remain just as it is — part of a much-admired, forested backdrop to sunsets seen from cottages and boats on Big Pond.
And not the site of a 180-foot cellular telephone tower.
The Otis Select Board voted during a Zoom conference Tuesday night to reject a proposed 180-foot tower off Churchill Road. Though the board’s chairman kept open the possibility of further talks with Verizon Wireless, the proposed tower’s operator, member Larry Southard made clear his opposition to any tower rising on town land at Big Pond.
“I think the site needs to go away,” Southard said.
The decision ends more than four months of debate that routinely drew more than 100 residents to Zoom sessions, including as many as 120 on Tuesday.
It leaves unresolved longstanding concerns about gaps in emergency radio signals that leave Otis public safety and public works personnel at times unable to communicate.
The board acted after hearing nearly two hours of urgent appeals from residents, warnings of legal action and an elected official’s claim that officials were misinterpreting town bylaws.
Resident Elaine Downing Hunter, a tower opponent who had warned of fire dangers, thanked the three-member board for its unanimous vote and asked that officials now work with planning and zoning officials to find another way to close gaps in emergency communications in Otis.
By leasing land to Verizon Wireless, the town sought to have radio equipment placed on the tower, along with cellular phone gear, to address gaps in service.
Resident Larry Pace joined Tuesday’s videoconference by observing that once again, emotions over the issue were running high: “You can literally cut the anxiety with a knife.”
Pace said three generations of his family have lived at Big Pond, on the town’s east side. “It’s the location of this tower that has everyone’s anxiety up,” he said.
When the decision came, nearly an hour later, officials voiced similar wishes to see acrimony subside and have people work for a common solution. Pace had argued that there must be another, better place for a tower, if one is needed to improve local radio communications. He warned that litigation was all but assured and said a long legal fight would not be in the best interests of the town or Big Pond residents. Opponents had retained a lawyer and sent two lengthy legal briefs to town officials detailing what they saw as problems with the tower plan.
“I’m hoping we can somehow find a happy medium here,” Pace said. “There has got to be a Plan B that can serve everybody’s interest.”
William Hiller, the board chair, voted with Southard and member Gary Thomas to reject the current tower proposal, an outcome that appeared to surprise tower opponents. Over the course of several meetings, Hiller had signaled that he felt the tower was needed, though he said he was still collecting information.
“Hopefully we can continue to have negotiations with these folks and come up with a site that is better for everyone,” Hiller said of Verizon. “And see if we can find something that is a little more appropriate.”
Earlier, Hiller had dismissed suggestions that the tower would reduce property values in the Big Pond area. He described an incident in which a police cruiser got lost around the pond and could not use its radio for guidance.
“This should concern the Big Pond residents more than anybody else,” Hiller said. “This is why this is such a big issue for the board. The majority of people [in Otis] are getting up to their senior years. … If the ambulance cannot find you … people could die.”
“I want to save people’s lives,” he said. “Keep your house from burning down. This is what we’re interested in doing.”
Southard said, just before the vote, that he’d made up his mind after considering the visual impact of a tower and the need to improve local radio communications. He said he was offended by an assertion, by Planning Board Chairman Harold Kobrin, that the board was seeking an “end run” around zoning rules.
“I personally don’t like cell phone towers. I don’t like the intrusiveness of them,” Southard said.
The session’s longest and most detailed argument against the tower came from Kobrin, who, roughly two decades ago, wrote the town’s bylaws pertaining to cell towers. Kobrin faulted the Select Board for not working with planners on the issue and for accepting a town counsel opinion that the proposed tower was exempt from bylaw rules on towers because the device would house emergency communications equipment.
“My opinion is that his opinion doesn’t hold water,” Kobrin said. “This is end-running our own bylaw. Which will render our bylaw useless.”
Any future action by the Select Board won’t involve Hiller, who steps down from the panel this month.
“We have actually listened to you,” he told residents.