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Shelburne divided on AT&T cell tower plan

SHELBURNE — A red balloon visual-impact test Saturday gave Colrain Shelburne Road residents a sense of how visible a 100-foot tall AT&T cell tower on Hager’s Farm property might be. Several residents asked that photographs of the balloon test be taken in front of their homes or even from inside windows, so they can get an idea of the visual impact.

Photo simulations of the matte galvanized steel tower will be superimposed on photos from several vantage points throughout the area, in preparation for the continuation of a cell tower hearing on July 29.

About 40 residents came to the first part of a special permit public hearing Tuesday for the mobile phone company to add a communications tower that AT&T officials say will close the cell phone coverage gap on the Mohawk Trail and give many Patten Hill residents access to service for the first time.

The application calls for the tower to be placed behind the old Mohawk Orchards barn, in a small valley to the back of the barn, away from the roadway. The tower will sit on previously developed property, with a 16-foot by 111/2 -foot equipment shelter. There will be no lights on the tower, just a light above the doorway of the equipment shed. The monopole will be less visible than the “lattice structure” of high-tension wires.

There are already three communications towers within town and AT&T is already on all three, but it’s not enough for AT&T to provide reliable cell phone and data plan service, said Arthur R. Kreiger, a lawyer for the phone company. “AT&T needs to make improvement in coverage and capacity,” he said. “People are not just not making calls on cell phones but streaming videos. In homes and buildings, people are using cell phones instead of land lines.”

In seeking a special permit to build a 100-foot tall monopole cell tower, AT&T is asking for three waivers or variances: The first is to waive a requirement that the tower be at least 500 feet from the nearest residence, since this tower will be about 330 feet away from the nearest home. The second is to allow the tower to be more than 20 feet above the treeline. The third variance is for the ZBA to allow more than one use on the same lot, since the cell tower will be located at 69 Colrain Shelburne Road, near the old Mohawk Orchard barn that is now used by landowner Hager’s Farm.

ZBA Chairman Joseph Palmeri repeatedly asked why the tower had to be 100 feet tall, since it’s located on cleared land and surrounding trees from the old apple orchard are not tall. The AT&T radio frequency engineer said the tower’s effectiveness in that area drops off below 100 feet and would not be worth constructing below 80 feet. AT&T’s plan is to install its equipment at the top of the tower and lease space on the lower part of the tower to other service providers.

Kreiger said other sites were considered, but the proposed Hager site was the best at both providing complete cell phone service on Route 2, from Shelburne Falls to Greenfield, and for covering a group of unserved residents.

ZBA member Michael Parry wanted to see more coverage of Shelburne, and wanted to see how many Shelburne residents might have coverage.

“The main issue is the lesser coverage of Route 2,” Kreiger replied. “We can give figures on the number of people served. AT&T can decide where it wants its market, but highways are important, because that’s where people are moving. Each carrier gets to decide what markets it wants to serve.”

Parry said he would also like to hear what a real estate appraiser has to say about how local property values would be affected by a cell tower less than 500 away.

“I’d be shocked if (a cell tower) 330 feet away would impact property value,” said Kreiger. “I would think cell service would increase property value.”

The Shelburne House Bed & Breakfast sits across the road from the proposed tower site, and B&B owner Elaine Hinze is concerned about the view from the guest room windows. Parry proposed that photo simulations be done out of the front windows of neighboring residents.

Elaine’s son, David Hinze, asked to see a tower simulation photo shown from 500 feet of his mother’s property, to compare what it might look like if the bylaw limits were honored. He also wondered if “stealth technology” — disguising the monopole as a farm silo or tree — would be an improvement. The ZBA preferred to see what it would look like as a silo, rather than as a giant pine tree in an apple orchard.

Larry and Susan Flaccus of Kenburn Orchards B&B were also concerned that the cell tower will be within their view.

ZBA member John Taylor told the audience that the board is forbidden by federal law to reject the cell tower proposal based on health concerns about cell phones. Many of those present had watched a video about supposed health effects of cell phone technology the night before.

The Planning Board, Conservation Commission and Board of Health had been told the proposed site was under Agricultural Preservation Restrictions; however, the land near the old barn was exempted from APR.

Jonathan Mirin of Colrain Shelburne Road said his wife is hypersensitive to electricity and that such health problems are viewed as “collateral damage” by companies that want to do away with land line phones.

But some residents welcomed the possibility of better cell coverage. Ryan and Laura Sandvik of Colrain Shelburne Road said the availability of cell phone service would enhance their home-based businesses.

“The tower is not visible from my house, but I would support it even if it was,” said Ryan Sandvik. “I think a lot of progress depends on things like this ... telephone lines, utility poles. The rest of the world has it. It’s time that we progress.”

A Peckville Road resident said he can’t even call home on his cell phone while eating lunch at Hager’s Farmstand. “I would like to see the reception improve,” he said.

The board wants AT&T to pay for an independent consultant, to be hired by the town, to evaluate the proposal and to weigh in on the impact of property values.

The hearing continues July 29 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Hall.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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