LENOX — For more than 10 years, residents, visitors and first responders have suffered from marginal cellphone signals in much of the town.
Now, armed with evidence from a consultant who confirmed the widespread, spotty reception, town planners are pushing to put the finishing touches on their draft of a wireless communications zoning bylaw.
The aim is to protect the town’s scenic and historic character while meeting the needs for modern wireless facilities. The proposal seeks to abide by local, state and federal regulations while minimizing environmental and visual impacts by setting up standards for locations and installations, with a strong preference for placing any new facilities on existing structures.
“Lenox has to do something, purely from a public safety standpoint and a business standpoint,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, on Monday. “I think the town is being left behind.”
Pignatelli cited complaints from police officers who can’t make urgent cellphone calls and from residents who can’t call 911 in an emergency.
“If you’re trying to be in business in the center of the business district, it’s near impossible,” he added. Downtown cell service in the busy town is marginal to poor. Pignatelli noted that he has had dropped calls while at the post office.
“Clearly, we’ve become a wireless society,” said Pignatelli. Another reason for investments in broadband and cellular service: The arrival of residents during the pandemic who can work remotely, he pointed out.
Limits on antenna heights and 300- or 500-foot buffers from residential properties are among the key issues to be settled as the bylaw is set to be fine-tuned at a hybrid Planning Board meeting Tuesday evening at 6 in Town Hall. A final decision is not likely until a follow-up meeting on Oct. 18.
The goal is to have a bylaw proposal ready for debate and a decision by voters during a special town meeting set for Nov. 17. A two-thirds majority would be needed for approval.
The problem may be potential pushback from some opponents of cell installations who claim health hazards from antennas in their neighborhoods, as in a section of south Pittsfield where a legal battle continues over a Verizon tower in a residential neighborhood.
A proposed low-power antenna in the chimney of the state-owned Curtis subsidized housing complex in the heart of the Lenox business district went nowhere last year after some apartment residents, many of them elderly, voiced opposition.
Several activists attended meetings on the proposal.
As one town official commented informally, “Everybody wants a better signal, but nobody wants a tower near them.” And in Lenox, most potential antenna locations are in or adjacent to residential areas.
Based on a “drive test” technical study conducted in May by consultant David Maxson of Isotrope LLC, who traveled about 100 miles of local roads, much of the town has "marginal" or "poor" service, especially downtown, along portions of Route 7 & 20 and in the southeast section, including Lenox Dale.
The town’s single existing cell tower, at 90 Pittsfield Road (Rt 7 & 20), less than two miles north of downtown, has all three carriers on it — Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. But the “drive test” measured poor or marginal signals more than 80 percent of the time, with Verizon the worst performer, with only about 10 percent of reception areas ranked as excellent or good, meeting design-standard goals.
With only one tower, Maxson, the consultant, wrote in his report, “the town is primarily served from cell sites outside the town. The two most likely areas of potential wireless facility development are the center of town and the southeast portion of town between Housatonic Street and the Lee line,” including Lenox Dale.
The Planning Board’s draft bylaw emphasizes location preferences:
- New facilities on existing structures unless it can be demonstrated that shorter, less visible towers or facilities may be preferable.
- Locations along denser commercial and industrial corridors.
- New towers as far from residential areas as possible so that their height does not “loom over” neighbors.
- New towers at sites that “do not pierce valuable scenic and historic views, although towers that ‘blend into’ hillside forests in an aesthetically unobtrusive way may achieve the purposes.”
- Municipal locations or other public sites that fit in with the bylaw’s other requirements.
The draft bylaw includes, as the top priority, choices including concealed installation at an existing wireless location, attachment to an existing tower without a substantial change, or a small wireless facility.
The second priority is a camouflaged facility at an existing location, with co-location at a shared site as a third priority.
The lowest priorities include substantial modification to an existing base station or tower, a new camouflaged or concealed tower or, at the bottom of the list, a “naked” new tower.
Applications for any new towers would require a mailed notification to all property owners within at least 300 feet, or possibly 600 feet, of the proposed site.
The draft bylaw suggests the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals would consider administrative approvals, special permits or variances, depending on the nature of a wireless facility application.
“Lenox is in the enviable position to be pro-active and identify where it wants something and guide how this infrastructure will look,” Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller said Monday.