Neighbors have filed a lawsuit against the town of Sharon over a cell tower recently approved for 411 East Foxboro St., arguing that officials did not properly secure Town Meeting permission to lease public land for a private purpose.
The Sharon Zoning Board of Appeals approved the AT&T tower March 14, and a lawyer for the neighbors filed suit in Superior Court the same day. The move could prolong what has become a two-year saga in Sharon as the town considered multiple sites for a tower.
AT&T spokesman Will Keyser said the lawsuit could delay construction; he would not give an estimated start date. Although AT&T needs only one tower to cover that area of Sharon, the company will seek to continue a hearing on a privately owned alternative site, 68 Mohawk St., in case something prevents them from building on East Foxboro Street, he said.
The lawsuit centers on the process town officials used to secure permission to use town-owned land for the tower. If it goes on public land, the town stands to earn $30,000 annually in lease income.
Christopher H. Heep, attorney for the neighbors of 411 East Foxboro St., said he hopes the court will find that the town cannot lease the property to AT&T without a new Town Meeting vote. Although Town Meeting changed the site’s designated use from water supply to “general municipal purposes,’’ opponents contend that since AT&T is a private enterprise, its tower does not qualify as a municipal purpose.
Joel Stein, one of the neighbors involved in the suit, said he could not imagine any reasonable person reading the Town Meeting article and concluding that Sharon intended to lease town-owned land to a private company. He said the process was not transparent.
“The whole thing is sad,’’ he said.
The Sharon Finance Committee mentioned the tower in its affirmative recommendation printed in the warrant, saying the Board of Selectmen wanted to allow the land to be used for a “cellular antenna array.’’ Three Finance Committee members dissented, however, and they said in the warrant, “The lack of early, or indeed any future, notification to the abutters did not allow for open and public discussion prior to the Annual Town Meeting.’’
Stein, who has acted as de facto spokesman for the neighbors who retained a lawyer, declined to say, even approximately, how many households are financing the lawsuit. Some contributions have come from outside the immediate neighborhood, he said, while other neighbors have reached the limit of what they can afford.
Kevin McCarville, acting chairman of the zoning board, said the procedural objection came at the last minute, after about two years of hearings.
“It’s the 11th hour and 59 minutes,’’ he said.
Although the earliest meetings focused on Mohawk Street, and East Foxboro Street was introduced later, he said the town has fulfilled its obligation to gather information and receive public comment.
The East Foxboro Street site contained two possible tower locations; the board approved the west location. The west location has more conifers, which will partially conceal the tower year round, McCarville said, whereas the other site, near town well No. 6, has more deciduous trees, which shed their leaves in the fall. The board was also concerned that concrete slabs to be placed on the site - a separate one for each carrier that shares the tower - would encroach on wetlands near well No. 6, he said.
Kim Kokkotos, a neighbor of the Mohawk Street property, said that she was relieved to learn the tower was going elsewhere, and that town coffers would get the revenue.
“I’m just glad to finally be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,’’ she said.
At a series of public hearings, neighbors of both sites complained that a cell tower would reduce their property values. Some warned that batteries and fuel used for the tower could pollute local waterways and the town well.
Asked whether she was concerned the lawsuit would lead the town to consider Mohawk Street again, Kokkotos said, “I’m sure they’re not the first abutters to ever sue a town over a cellphone tower.’’
Lawsuits often come from telecommunications companies that communities seek to block. McCarville said during the hearings that the town had no choice but to approve a tower, because federal law gives companies the right to provide contiguous coverage. It was a matter of where to put the tower, not whether Sharon wanted one, he said.