The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 23, 1999


Board of appeals wrestles with cell tower issues

Issues of beauty, wetland preservation, life and death emergency calls, and historical responsibility were but a few of the elements of the April 15 board of appeals meeting that continued to struggle with the issues surrounding a 100-foot monopole for cellular communications proposed by Nextel Communications, Inc.

The Carlisle Board of Appeals fleshed out a better, if not final, picture of issues that may affect how Carlisle residents, some of the heaviest cell phone users in the country, feel about the proposed tower at 1 River Road.

Having been asked previously about other potential sites for the tower in Carlisle, Nextel responded at the April 15 meeting that problems existed at every other site they had examined. Private parcels that were large enough were not zoned for commercial use, or were not available because landowners were not interested. Other business-zoned parcels were not large enough to accommodate the 100-foot setback requirement. Nextel also commented, in an aside, that the Massachusetts Supreme Court had recently ruled in favor of a cell tower company, decreeing that a permitting authority such as the board of appeals does not have the authority to require applicants to examine alternative sites.

Environmental impact

Issues of environmental impact were on the agenda at the meeting as well; the conservation commission had asked Nextel to file a letter of intent, which they agreed to do. One wetland border comes within five feet of the parking lot of the proposed site, affecting the buffer zone. Though the site was not considered to impact a wetland area, there was potential impact on a vernal pool. However, Mike Secamp of Secamp Environmental, who was asked to study the environmental impact, did not feel that the area in question constituted a true vernal pool, based on certain technical criteria, including certain species which would be visible at this time of year but were not. Questions of water quality were raised, and Nextel stated that although there was no connection with the tower and water quality, they had agreed to build a small detention basin to collect runoff before it reached the wetland area.

Two underground, 1,000-gallon oil tanks at either end of the building on the proposed site owned by Renfroe Realty Trust still contain 400 gallons of oil. Plans are to pump those remaining gallons out before removing the tanks. The tanks apparently do not leak, and they would have been removed already, according to a Renfroe representative, had they not been so close to wetlands that a permit has to be issued first.

Nextel was asked by the board to provide another plan with all abutting residences and buildings indicated on the plan, as well as showing wetland areas. While some plans show the closest residence to be at 300 feet, a letter from a concerned resident claimed a residence was within 158 feet of the proposed site. Paul Bergman, of Bergman Associates, responded that such a plan would be drawn up, and said that a survey was the best way to determine the exact locations of property.

When asked about the foundation of the tower, Bergman responded that he could not respond to such questions until a geotechnical investigation was done, after which structure would be designed. Typically, this is not done until a permit has been issued, prompting an incensed Bergman to comment, "You are the first board that I've ever been before, and I've been before about 50, that has ever asked for this information. We don't typically answer construction issues until after approval " To this, board member Hal Sauer asked, "Are you saying you request permit approval before any foundation questions are answered? Are you asking the board to approve a structure that we don't know the details of?" Nextel then suggested that the board had no authority to decide on the building design, that such approval was at the hands of the building inspector.

Gaps on service

One of Nextel's main points in promoting the need for a cell tower in Carlisle was a number of gaps that interrupt users' calls. Comparing themselves to a heat or electric utility, they deemed such gaps inconsistent with their goals as a continuous service provider "What if your electricity went off if in spots, or your heat?" they asked. They cited the possibility of being in an area where a customer's cell phone was inoperable, and having to make an emergency 911 call. Depending on the height of the new tower to be built, these gaps would close at the following proportions, Nextel explained.

Though Nextel uses the total area of all gaps when presenting interrupted service figures, the present average size gap is on average 66 square feet, about the size of a good-sized room. This could mean only a moment of interrupted service as a car was driving down a street, as board member Phyllis Zinicola observed. The location of these gaps, whether they are in high traffic areas or places where no cell phones would be used, (i.e., the middle of a wetland) is something that needs to be determined as well.

In their next appearance before the board, the apparently beleaguered Nextel representatives agreed to show the location of each gap in an overlay map. Nextel would be happy, they stated, with a 100-foot tower, which could, in the future, accommodate more users if necessary. A taller tower which would occupy only one to two parking spaces at its base and screened by newly planted trees, was the preferred option by Nextel and seemed more acceptable to the board than a town full of towers.

Abutter David Duren opposes the site on a scenic road where "a tower would be in everybody's face." He asked, "How do you screen a 100-foot tower with five-foot trees?"

As the meeting drew to a close with many details left to be continued to the April 29 meeting, River Road resident Dee Chang took a moment to speak. Suggesting that something had been lost in the evening's meeting, some vision, he reminded the room that "technically, we don't have the right to tell someone whether or not they can build a tower." Yet the town could decide where it was built, he continued. Chang suggested that everyone stop for a moment and look at the town as a whole, part of an historic web from Concord to Bedford and Lexington. The River Road bridge makes the entrance to Carlisle, said Chang, and the site, on "one of the most precious routes in better suited for a church than a metal tower." Carlisle, he said, always looked to its historical architects, and he wondered why none were present a the meeting. "Believe me," said Change, "in the long run, in history, the tower will become a landmark. I could see if it was something beautiful, but a metal tower! At the entrance to our town. It's not the tower, it's the site." On April 29, the battle for the fate of that site continues.

1999 The Carlisle Mosquito