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Ashfield wants Internet; some dispute use of historic steeple

White rectangular "boxes" jutting out on the lower level columns represent the sizes of the antennas to be mounted  on the Ashfield Town Hall steeple, under a proposal by Christopher Gray to start a local wireless Internet service. Submitted photo/Christopher Gray.

White rectangular "boxes" jutting out on the lower level columns represent the sizes of the antennas to be mounted on the Ashfield Town Hall steeple, under a proposal by Christopher Gray to start a local wireless Internet service. Submitted photo/Christopher Gray.

ASHFIELD — The 40 to 50 residents who filled Town Hall’s first floor seemed to be of three camps: Those who like Christopher Gray’s proposal to provide high-speed wireless Internet by rigging antennas on the Town Hall steeple, connecting to the town’s “middle mile” broadband fiber; those who think the antennas could diminish or damage the town’s most prominent, historic architectural feature; and those who questioned whether a town asset — broadband paid for by state taxpayers — should be given over to a private venture.

Also, many residents did not realize, coming into the Town Hall, that plywood mock-ups of the antennas to be placed on the steeple were already positioned on it — to show what the visual impact would be.

Christopher Gray of Ashfield, who proposed setting up a “fixed wireless” Internet service for homes and businesses within the village center, explained that he hoped to be able to offer Internet speeds of up to 10 megabit per second downloads. In return for the use of the broadband fiber, Gray would provide and maintain Internet service to Town Hall and the adjacent Fire Station.

Gray said he was planning to charge subscribers $50 per month plus a $200 installation fee. He said he has looked at alternative locations for placing the antennas, but the Town Hall steeple — the tallest structure in town — had the greatest chance of reaching the most people.

“The other option would be putting up a new tower, but that would be as visible in the town center as is the Town Hall — without a fiber optic connection,” said Gray.

Jody Hall, who has been researching the steeple’s history and 1986 reconstruction since last spring, told the group, “I believe we have a much more architecturally important steeple than we knew. I have reservations about putting large antennas on the steeple.”

She said that the Town Hall and steeple were built in 1814, but the steeple design itself may have been by Asher Benjamin (1773-1845), who once lived in Greenfield and who wrote the first architecture book in America. Hall said she sent photographs of the steeple to the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s architectural historian, Joseph Cornish, who told her he believes the steeple design is based on Plate 27 of Benjamin’s book, “The Country Builder’s Assistant: Containing a Collection of New Designs of Carpentry and Architecture which will be Particularly Useful to Country Workmen in General.” The book was published in Greenfield in 1797, and Cornish told Hall the building could be considered an Asher Benjamin design.

Hall said she is concerned that the three panels to be mounted on the steeple columns “would significantly impact the profile and look of the columns, especially in regard to black shadows cast by the panels on sunny days.”

“I realize the Town Hall is a functioning building, and not a museum,” she continued, “and we accept fire and police antennas on it. She said she was concerned that “the addition of more forms and shapes to the architectural elements” would create a mishmash that would affect the steeple’s elegance and grace.

She said Gray’s photos of the plywood facsimile-antennas did not show the effects of shadows cast by the additions, and that computer-aided design (CAD) images would be more helpful.

Dave DeHerdt wanted to know if other Internet service providers had been invited to make proposals, since there could be a better proposal out there. He worried that the town wasn’t getting enough in return for sharing its resource. He also worried that having a broadband service for just part of the town would jeopardize the town’s ability to get last-mile fiber optics through the WiredWest initiative.

“If that effort is successful, in the next three to five years, we would be the beneficiary of world-class service,” he said.

David Kulp of the town’s Technology Committee, said the town is already considered as “partially served,” and this additional service wouldn’t change the town’s standing for last-mile fiber optics.

Kulp said that the committee looked for potential providers in recent years, but there hasn’t been interest, due to the town’s small population. “I think the current service is a good option for us,” he said. “We probably don’t need to achieve the same (subscriber) numbers that GAW (Great Auk Wireless) was trying to achieve,” he said, referring to the Vermont-based ISP that proposed building wireless Internet for the town, then dropped the idea.

Hall asked if the installation would require a special permit. Planning Board Chairman Michael Fitzgerald replied, “We don’t know.” He said the board discussed the issue this week, but still has questions about some of the “legalities,” as defined under federal rules. “We’re going to think about it, but it will probably need a special permit,” he said.

“I appreciate the need for high-speed Internet, but I consider this an inappropriate use of one of the most historic pieces of architecture of our region,” said Arnold Jones.

“I don’t understand the process of taking public property and attaching a personal use to it,” said Will Elwell. “I think the Town Hall and the steeple belong to the people, and I think they should have a say in how it’s used. In the end, who is going to decide what happens?”

Selectboard Chairman Thomas Carter said that’s the reason why Thursday’s meeting was called by the board — to hear what people had to say. He said if the decision isn’t made by the Selectboard, it would probably be made at a town meeting.

Brian Clark brought historic photographs to the meeting, saying that the Town Hall has been added onto at least three times, and the steeple has been changed over the years — especially with the addition of a siren up there,” he said. “This is a living building (that’s gone) through many changes — sometimes in a tasteful manner and sometimes not.”

Mary Fitz-Gibbon, who lives close enough to Town Hall to get a clear view of the steeple, said she “absolutely loves the steeple.”

“Since the mock-ups went up ... I don’t really see much difference,” she said. “I think high-speed Internet is very important. ... I love living in the village, which is absolutely beautiful, but it’s not a museum. It seems to me the bell tower was created originally for communication. And, for this day and age, communication happens very fast,” she said.

In between the concerns that were raised, other residents wanted to know if their homes were close enough to receive the service, or whether they would have good reception when the tree foliage fills in.

Gray said, if he gets permission to mount the antennas on the steeple, he will add repeaters and possible other antenna sites as the number of subscribers increases and the revenue to build out is available.

Gray has also spoken about offering similar service to other towns that now have a middle-mile broadband connection. He met with Charlemont’s Board of Selectmen earlier this week.

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

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