Town looks to plug gaps in cell phone coverage
BY TOM REILLY
The Whittier family is offering the town 5.1 acres with access to Town Farm Road for $24,000 to erect a cell tower/public safety communications tower. Revenue from the tower would be applied to the debt from the APR. Smith said his consultant believes this alone could for the entire cost of the debt service over time and would resolve cell phone coverage issues in West Sutton. He commended the Whittiers for making this gesture for such a small amount of money and said he believes people would want to preserve the tree-line along Town Farm Road rather than see it replaced by 100 single-family homes.
Selectman Michael Chizy said he sees this as "a gift from the Whittiers because if they turned around and sold that land, we'll be building three new schools." He said the Whittiers and Smith had come up with a great way to pay for the town's portion of the project. He cited the family's generosity for everything from taking part in the Memorial Day Parade to bringing fresh fruit and vegetables down to the Senior Center.
Selectman Fattman said he saw this as a union of two things: "good people and good government." Fattman recalled he had invited the Whittiers to come to a festival at Marion's Camp and sell their produce, but had never expected them to turn around and donate the proceeds to the town.
Selectman Rick Hersom said he lives West Sutton and he is constantly plagued with cell phone connection problems. He reminded everyone of the consequences of the 100 single-family homes including the high cost of educating the children who would end up living there. "This has my utmost support," said Hersom. "I think it's a wise thing for the town to consider."
In a review of a second West Sutton cell tower proposal, Town Administrator Jim Smith stressed the lack of cell phone coverage in West Sutton, particularly along the Central Turnpike as it runs from Uxbridge Road to Oxford. This has caused ongoing challenges for public safety communications and reception, but also for the general public, because more and more people rely on their cell phones for business and personal communication, he noted.
According to the town bylaws, wireless communications services are limited to business and industrial properties — located almost exclusively on Route 146 — and on town-owned properties. The town could not put up the tower on the Whittier property if that parcel remained under the family's control. Only by selling it to the town can a tower be erected there. Private companies can attempt to exercise a loophole in the bylaws if they can prove that there are gaps in coverage, as specified in the Telecommunications Act for 1990, and Smith said that they have been looking at ways to erect towers in West Sutton for years. If the town could put up its own towers and fill in the holes in the coverage, then it keeps these companies from circumventing the bylaws while keeping the revenue for itself,
Smith said the town has tried for years to upgrade or move the tower behind town hall, but for a variety of reasons it has been prevented from doing so. The town hall tower carries only the emergency services transmitters and no private wireless of any type. Smith said that at some point it might make sense to move this tower to the Shaw Farm, but that for the time being he was going to leave that issue alone.
Smith said the way to resolve the gaps in coverage is to build two cell towers — one at the Shaw Farm and one on Town Farm Road on former Whittier Farm property. The revenue from the Town Farm Road site would be applied to the protection of the 300+ acres at Whittier Farms while the revenue from the Shaw farm could go into the general fund, or it could fund any development of the Shaw site. Smith said there is a possibility the town's public safety communications could be relocated to a cell tower at Shaw. He thinks the town could realize at least $50,000 a year in revenue if it got enough carriers on the tower.
Smith is considering two sites where the tower could be erected at the Shaw Farm. Both are set in the trees, hundreds of feet from the road and any residences. Both Shaw sites are 680 feet above sea level not as high as the 710 feet in the town center. The Massachusetts Historical Commission has consistently forbidden the town to erect a higher tower in a historic district.
The Town Farm Road parcel is 821 feet above sea level and back in the tree line, said Smith, adding that there would be an easement granted for both infrastructure and access to the five-acre site. Under the proposed agreement, the Whittiers would continue to maintain the land around the camouflaged monopole. Smith said there would also likely be a reversion clause in the agreement that would return the land to the Whittiers or their heirs after 20 years if the town was no longer using the site for public safety communications. The cost to the Whittiers would be $1.
Selectmen will have the final say on both projects, but only after town meeting authorizes them to enter into a lease with wireless carriers on behalf of the town. This would come after approvals from both the Zoning Board and the town's Historical Commission. The Town Farm Road tower is dependent on the successful completion of the Agricultural Preservation Restriction and a sales agreement between the town and the Whittiers on the five-acre parcel.
Selectman Michael Chizy said this sort of project has been brought up several times over the last six or seven years, primarily for public safety reasons, and he sees it as an important step if Smith could complete both projects.
Selectman Ryan Fattman called providing better cell phone coverage "a noble goal," but that even more important was patching the holes in the public safety communications. Selectman John Hebert said the towers would help not just the police and fire departments but also the highway department and ambulance crews.
"It's the time of the future and we need to move ahead on this," he said.