After months of discussion and several continuances of a public hearing, the Westwood Planning Board Thursday night officially denied a proposal to construct a cell tower at Temple Beth David.
The board entered deliberations on the matter after hearing further discussion from the applicants involved, and ultimately decided that the bulk of the issue came down to whether the cell tower would in fact impede on the surrounding area, aesthetically.
"There is no question that this is the first (cell tower) that's immediately off a street, in front of a building, in a very visible location," said Planning Board Secretary Jack Wiggin during the Planning Board's deliberations Thursday night at Westwood High School.
The applicants for the project, who include SBA Towers II, LLC; T-Mobile Northeast, LLC; and MetroPCS Massachusetts, LLC., were essentially seeking to construct a 99-foot, 6-inch flagpole-style monopole that would contain three T-Mobile panel antennas at the centerline height of 95 feet, 3 inches.
As part of the proposal, MetroPCS would have an antenna at 86 feet, 9 inches. While it was initially stated the the antenna would be 36 inches in diameter, it was explained Thursday night that the diameter could be reduced to 30 inches, but no thinner at such a height would be possible.
The issue has been hotly-debated by the Planning Board, as well as Westwood residents, since it was first proposed in January. Likewise, Thursday night's decision was not made in haste, and did not come without further input from the public.
The hearing included further testimony by both the applicants and a consultant hired by the town on the level of wireless coverage that currently exists in the area surrounding Temple Beth David.
David Maxson of Isotrope Wireless, whom the Town of Westwood hired to review the application for further analysis, presented several maps that portrayed the current coverage area for both T-Mobile and MetroPCS, which showed the results of various drive tests and any potential "gaps" in coverage both in vehicles and in buildings.
"The applicant has demonstrated areas where residential coverage is substantially below their thresholds in locations that the proposed facility would address," Maxson said.
On the flip side, Ricardo Souza, who represented the applicants, introduced a newly-hired expert, Dan Goulet of C Squared Systems, whom the applicants hired after . Souza said he felt having additional data from a third party would be beneficial to the Board in making a decision.
"We wouldn't, as wireless carriers, be proposing this site unless we really had a need for it," Souza said. "And we have a need to fill this gap in coverage."
Goulet explained that about 53 percent of Westwood's residents are covered by T-Mobile, a number that could increase to more than 65 percent with the new tower.
Meanwhile, only 44 percent of Westwood's residents are currently covered by Metro PCS, he said, a number that could increase by 14 percent with the proposed tower.
"It's not optimal, but it's a significant improvement," Goulet said. "You're now talking about bringing an extra 2,022 homes."
But residents continued with their arguments against the desire for such a tower in town, and gave various reasons as to why it should not be considered.
Sexton Avenue resident John Hickey questioned why a third party even needed to be consulted in the first place.
"We can sit here with 100 experts," Hickey said. "If you look on (the applicants') websites, which under Federal Law must be truthful, we have good-to-excellent service in Westwood. We don't need this tower."
Added Pond Street resident John Concordia, "Apparently, since the applicant was no closer to getting a 'yes,' he brought in another expert, and if you give him another six months, he'll bring in all the experts you want to hear. Is this applicant ever going to go away with a yes or no answer?"
Pond Street resident Joanne Atkinson reiterated the sentiment, but more so regarding the physical appearance of the tower.
"It's going to be a huge industrial nightmare structure," said Atkinson, who, to strengthen her argument, held a piece of sample paneling that the cell tower would be mad of.
Souza presented the sample of panel after Town Planner Nora Loughnane asked if the applicants had brought in a visual component to give the town a better idea of what the pole would look like. Loughnane emphasized that the request had been made frequently in past meetings, yet had not been accomodated.
While Souza said he was not able to bring such a visual component to the hearing, he instead brought forth the piece of paneling.
"That shows what the material is, but it doesn't show what the aesthetics are, size-wise," said Planning Board Chair Steve Rafsky.
While holding the sample, Atkinson explained - with the aid of a tape measure brought in by another resident - that the diameter based on that piece of paneling would be larger than the 30 inches Souza had described.
Resident Doug Stebbins, meanwhile, argued that the town's bylaws state that any cell towers installed need to resemble an actual flagpole or be supported with some form of lattice structure. (A flagpole-style cell tower currently exists at Morrision Field, which Rafsky said many residents aren't even aware of due to the fact that it's barely visible.)
"We all know what a flag pole is," said Stebbins of the proposed structure for Temple Beth David. "That's not like any flagpole I've ever seen."
During deliberations, board members discussed the aesthetics of the pole, the potential gap in coverage, and whether other sites in town could be considered for a tower down the road.
Loughnane said one real concern of hers was the applicants' inability to produce a visual component of the flagpole to better portray what it would look like. The notion resonated throughout the board.
"To me, the benefits do not outweigh the negative impacts that I see here with the aesthetics," said Planning Board Vice Chair Steve Olanoff. "There's a real danger that (the applicants) will go to court and we'll be overruled. While I'm generally against turning something down flat and running the risk of being overruled, I think in this case it's more beneficial to do that."
But Olanoff emphasized that he encouraged the applicants to see if another area in town would work, one that wouldn't be as visually obtrusive or aesthetically harmful to the area. If such a location were to be found, a new proposal could be presented.
"We should turn this down and that the message to the applicant would not be to urn it to the court and get it overtunred, but to look at another location," Olanoff said. "I'm encouraging the applicant to look at it that way."