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Dedham reaching deal on cell tower

With little enthusiasm, Dedham officials are moving ahead with plans for a T-Mobile cellular phone antenna to be built atop the Mother Brook Arts and Community Center.

At their June 20 meeting, selectmen signed an agreement that will be sent to T-Mobile USA Inc. Town officials declined to provide a copy of the contract to the Globe, but Town Administrator William Keegan said Dedham would receive $25,000 per year for leasing space to T-Mobile at the community center, which is the site of the former Avery School.

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Selectman James MacDonald said at Thursday’s meeting that the town supports the agreement in order to have more control over the location and to get revenue from the company.

The company has said it needs a tower in East Dedham to improve cellphone coverage in the area, and federal law limits the ability of local communities to block construction of such towers.

However, Dedham officials and residents have said they have not heard complaints about cell service in the eastern part of town.

In denying a previous T-Mobile attempt to erect a cell tower in East Dedham, the Zoning Board of Appeals wrote in December 2011 that “not one person from outside of T-Mobile came forward to suggest that they had cellphone coverage issues. To the contrary, people from the public testified on the record that they did not have coverage issues.”

T-Mobile spokesman Steven Caplan declined to comment on specifics about the site selection because of ongoing litigation against the town. But he provided a T-Mobile guide that said cell-tower sites are determined by customer demand, with radio engineers then conducting an analysis.

Wireless signals travel by line of sight, so ideal locations have minimal interference from tall buildings, hills, and trees. Commercial and industrial areas are given preference, but sometimes wireless facilities must be located in residential areas, according to the guide.

T-Mobile has been trying to install a tower in the area since 2010, when Town Meeting voted against allowing one at nearby Condon Park. The company then worked with AliMed Co. to build a tower on the company’s building at 297 High St.

Both proposals were fought by the Mother Brook Community Group, which is unaffiliated with the arts center. Group member Steve Davey raised concerns about environmental effects of radio emissions so close to schools and residences.

The AliMed proposal was denied by the Zoning Board of Appeals in 2011 after vocal community opposition organized partly by the Mother Brook group, but T-Mobile took the matter to court. An appeal of the zoning board decision is still active, according to Caplan.

Noting that the town probably would not prevail in court, Keegan said that officials decided to try to work with the company to find a location.

If a communications company can show it has a weak cellphone signal in an area, the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 places the burden on local governments to show why an antenna should not be placed there.

The environmental arguments raised by Davey are explicitly forbidden by the act if the radio emissions fall within the Federal Communications Commission’s regulations.

“The federal law was written specifically by agents of the telecommunications community in 1996 to steamroll local governments,” Davey said in September, when selectmen were asking for bids to build an antenna above the center.

Town officials are allowed to lease the space at the former Avery School, where they are also leasing space to the arts center, Keegan said.

Keegan said he has not heard of any organized opposition to the antenna at the former Avery School site. Dan Hart, chairman of the Mother Brook Community Group, said his group is not likely to fight the plan.

Dedham officials told the community group that the town would have more control over the antenna’s location and be able to obtain revenue from T-Mobile if it negotiated placing the antenna on the former school building, said Hart. The court would probably overturn the zoning board’s decision blocking the AliMed antenna, he said.

“What we were told is there were two options: Either go to a private entity or we can put it on the grounds or roof of the old Avery School,” Hart said of the town’s presentation.

Davey said he would have preferred placing the antenna on the Department of Public Works building or a site farther from residences, but the town is not pursuing such plans.

A construction schedule has not been determined, but Hart said he hopes there will be a public discussion about the antenna before plans become final. While he is not in favor of the antenna, Hart said he did not see any other option.

“It almost feels like our hands are tied,” he said.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at eisen.globe@gmail.com.
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