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Our Opinion: Pittsfield Board of Health comes to its senses — and hopefully learns lessons

Pittsfield Board of Health cease and desist (copy)

The Pittsfield Board of Health is seen at its Feb. 2 meeting, where it voted unanimously to issue a cease-and-desist order to Verizon over a controversial cell tower sited just off South Street. At its most recent meeting, the Board of Health voted unanimously to rescind the cease-and-desist order.

The Pittsfield Board of Health deserves credit for averting at the last minute a legal fight with a telecom giant that could have proved disastrous for the city.

Dropping the cease-and-desist order over a Verizon cell tower, which in turn led to Verizon dropping its federal lawsuit, was a welcome reversal that shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.

Even after the unanimous vote to rescind the order regarding the South Street cell tower, the health board chair’s explanation for that initial tact was troubling.

“When we issued the cease-and-desist order, we did that as a strategy to have a conversation with Verizon,” Chair Bobbie Orsi told The Eagle. “I guess my feeling now is that litigation is perhaps not the process, that’s going to get us to — that’s not going to help resolve the issues right now.”

Pittsfield Board of Health asks Verizon to remove or relocate controversial South Street cell tower

City health officials should not be first learning that lesson on the job, but we hope it sinks in. Trying to prompt a “conversation” is not nearly justification for provoking Verizon into a predictable — and justified — riposte over a cell tower that the city permitted. That would be true even if that conversation between the board and Verizon hadn’t already happened — which it did in October of last year. What further conversation was worth this needlessly risky approach?

A generous read of the board’s actions might note that it was responding to loud and persistent calls for action from a small contingency of constituents, mostly from Shacktown neighborhood residents who were vehemently opposed to the structure on procedural grounds before it even existed. Still, as we hope the Board of Health would now acknowledge, the call from a vocal minority to “do something” is not carte blanche to do just anything.

The Board of Health’s reasoning for pursuing the cease-and-desist order was their ostensible finding that the tower is a “cause of sickness” that renders nearby residences “unfit for human habitation.” Not only did the evidence for this finding appear to seriously confuse notions of correlation and causation — a distinction we’d hope health officials would understand — it also raises a glaring question: What about the city’s other cell towers located near residential areas? It’s worth noting that the South Street tower was found by a third-party radiation analysis to be emitting less than one-50th of the federal standard, a finding that was brushed aside as meaningless by tower opponents and the health board alike. Why the disparity in attention between this tower operating within radiation emission standards and others within city limits? All of this raises serious questions regarding Board of Health practices about its standards for determining something “causes harm” and how it handles those issues.

On top of all that, the Board of Health also has done something it can’t undo even by making the right move and stepping back from the edge of legal conflict: It has strung along the angry residents the board claimed to be representing in its ill-conceived crusade. While we have disagreed with the reasoning behind their rage, these tower opponents had false hopes wrongly raised by the health board only to meet the worst kind of nonresolution — the kind that will only contribute to the conspiracy-mongering that has pressurized this issue from the fringes.

In several editorials on this cell tower spat, we stressed that the rash and escalatory approach taken by the Pittsfield Board of Health was not the responsible move expected from officials doing their due diligence on behalf of constituents and the city.

We are glad to see the board finally come to its senses and reverse course before this needlessly spilled into the courts. Still, it is worth underscoring the poor decisions that dragged the entire city to the threshold of a costly conflict — so that such decision-making is avoided in the future.

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