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Lynnfield considers cell towers to plug gaps in coverage

Driven by the increasing demand for data-hungry cellphones, telecommunications carriers are seeking to fill holes in their coverage by building more cell towers, and some Bay State towns are eager for a slice of the revenue.

In Lynnfield, town officials are weighing several proposals from telecom carriers to erect monopole towers and antennas on public property, including the Town Hall campus on Summer Street, which ultimately would require voter approval.

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The move, if approved, could mean a windfall for the cash-strapped town’s coffers – estimated at between $1,600 and $4,000 a month per carrier for each tower – but town officials also fear it could ignite a backlash from residents concerned about ruined aesthetics, declining property values, and potential health issues.

“We’re trying to balance our need to boost revenues with the potential impact on the surrounding neighborhoods,” said Town Administrator William Gustus. “There are a lot of issues that have to be addressed before we move ahead.”

Generally, federal telecommunications law bars towns and cities from blocking cell tower proposals, especially if they are using health concerns as the rationale to deny a project. But the governing boards of those communities have broad discretion when it comes to the siting and permitting for cell towers, and can pass laws restricting their placement near residential neighborhoods and schools.

Recently, AT&T Mobility LLC submitted a proposal to build a cell tower near the corner of Summer and Salem Streets, one of Lynnfield’s most congested intersections. The proposed facility would include a 120-foot monopole telecommunications tower and support equipment on the town-owned parcel. Other telecom carriers have proposed towers at the South Lynnfield Fire Station, a public park, and Town Hall at 59 Summer St., according to town officials.

Gustus said the wireless providers are trying to plug gaps in regional broadband coverage, and admits his town has plenty of them.

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“There are places in this town where you’re not going to get a signal no matter which carrier you’re using,” he said.

Industry officials said increasing demand for broadband coverage by personal communications service carriers, driven by the proliferation of smartphones and more elaborate wireless devices, will mean a need for more cell towers in coming years. Broadband coverage to transmit large chunks of data requires more towers and antennas to cover a given area than for traditional cellular phone service.

“More and more people have smartphones, and in order for those smartphones to work they need to have a reliable and robust network of towers and antennas to handle that traffic,” said Will Keyser, a spokesman for AT&T in New England. “The demand on wireless providers is increasing tremendously, and we’re trying to build a network that can meet current and future demands.”

Telecom firms often face opposition over freestanding cell towers — even when disguised as trees or church spires — and many of those disputes spill into court as neighborhood groups sue to prevent them from being built.

And while recent reports from the American Cancer Society and the US Food and Drug Administration found it unlikely that the electromagnetic fields emitted by cell towers cause cancer, community groups that fight cell tower proposals frequently still cite concerns about the possible health risks as a factor.

Lynnfield has had a rocky relationship with carriers over cell tower proposals.

In 2010, a proposal by T-Mobile to build a 150-foot tower on Messiah Lutheran Church property was met with vehement opposition from neighbors. The plans were scrapped before it went before the Board of Selectmen for approval.

Shortly after, voters approved the creation of a municipal district for wireless communication towers — encompassing the Camp Curtis Guild National Guard base and the Lynnfield Center Water District property on Phillips Road. They also set restrictions for towers erected in the new district, including a prohibition on placement within 1,000 feet of a residential area.

But the proposed tower sites are outside that district and would require voter approval to change the zoning requirements, a process Gustus and other town officials say could take more than six months.

And there is concern among town officials that if they turn down the offers, the telecom carriers will find a private landowner willing to lease them land.

“If the town doesn’t go along with the plan they’ll just go two blocks down the street to private lands,” said Selectman David Nelson. “And the town won’t get the money.”

Some Bay state communities have rejected cell tower projects amid public outcry.

In June, Saugus officials voted down a proposal from T-Mobile to build a cellphone tower at the Little League field on Hurd Avenue, even after the town awarded the winning bid for the telecom carrier to build the tower. The deal would have meant $36,000 a year in fees for the town and a $12,000 one-time payment to the Saugus Little League for field improvements, officials said.

And in August, Scituate’s Board of Selectmen rejected AT&T’s proposal for a 150-foot tower adjacent to the Wampatuck Elementary School. The town forced AT&T to consider an alternate site off Tilden Road, which was approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals two weeks ago.

Lynnfield Selectman Thomas Terranova Jr. said he’s already beginning to get calls and e-mails from neighborhood residents who oppose the cell towers. He says a big fight is brewing over the issue.

“People are going to be up in arms over this proposal,” he said. “Nobody is going to want this in their backyard.”

Wade can be reached at cmwade1969@gmail.com.

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