Rev. Joe Zarro has been the spiritual leader of Plymouth Church on Pleasant Street coming on a year in the fall. The Harvard Divinity School grad said that he, his wife and nearly one-year-old son have enjoyed their time in Belmont.
“It’s been a great experience for us,” said Zarro as his family prepares to venture out to Cape Cod for the first time later in the week.
One thing Zarro would like to do increasingly is to spread the church’s message to people in Belmont and the surrounding communities.
“I would like to do more missionary work and outreach,” Zarro told the Belmontonian. But that would require a larger budget to accomplish that and other goals he has on his “to do” list.
Now, Zarro and the Plymouth congregation believe they may have found the answer to their wishes outlined in the sky.
But rather than heavenly intervention, it’s the church’s steeple that could provide the means to strengthen the church’s calling. A pair of telecommunication giants want to use the steeple’s interior as the home for a slew of antennas to boost cellular communications and data in a town with a well-earned reputation of having “spotty” reception for smart phones and other personal devices.
For the church, leasing their property would provide “a meaningful amount of revenue that others in town have benefitted from” that the church could use “to support our lofty goals of our mission,” said Myron Kassaraba, who leads the church’s Cell Antenna Committee.
As the church prepares to decide whether to move forward on an agreement, several neighbors are concerned that the radiation from a cell tower near their homes and looming over where many send children to study and play could prove to be a long-term health risk.
Their colorful posters, plastered on posts and poles in and around Belmont Center, pleaded for the church to “Please keep our neighbors healthy and happy” by saying “No to Cell Towers on Plymouth Church.”
“I think with all the studies so far (on radiation emanating from cell towers), I don’t think there is enough observation especially since it’s a very new technology,” said Marsh Street’s Zhao Gang.
“We only started using cell phones continuously recently so we don’t know if this will be harmful in the future. So it’s better to be on the cautious side,” said Gang.
On Monday, June 30, the church held a public meeting to provide neighbors with information on a possible tower inside the steeple – in fact, there is some talk of replacing the original structure with a fiberglass version.
“We feel that this is an opportunity for the church,” said Kassaraba, who stated the church’s view at the meeting.
Plymouth has been around since 1899 with more than 100 member families, a community run by a church council and a board of trustees, many “who are very active in local, civic and government,” said Kassaraba.
With each church an independent entity and self-funding, the church’s missions – whether in town to its globally aspirations – is dependent on raising available funds.
While Plymouth trustees have yet to propose a cell steeple to the congregation, the funds coming into the church’s coffers could be significant. According to the website wirelessestimator.com, the price of a leasing agreement is based on “location, location, location” and Belmont appears to possess prime residential and cellular property.
“The average cell tower rent is going to vary from county to county and state to state — and they also differ depending on which carrier you are dealing with, they amount of pain they have (bad coverage and tough zoning laws), and their budgets,” states the website of AirWave Management, which negotiates leases for landowners with telecom carriers and tower companies.
On average nationwide, the typical lease is about $1,500 a month or $18,000 annually. But lease rates can vary drastically, “from $400 a month for a paging company on a rural Tennessee site to $3,900 or more for a New England prime highway corridor for a PCS carrier, rates are based upon the location of the tower and the location and size of the antennas and lines as well as the ground space required,” according to the site.
Can you hear me now in Belmont Center?
For AT&T and Verizon – each contacted the church in October 2013 on placing a tower at the church – the area along Pleasant Street which the AT&T representative Peter Cook called by its Massachusetts highway name, Route 60, has been a trouble spot for its customers.
“We do have problems on 60 and in Belmont Center,” said Cook, noting that his company has been “looking for several years for an ideal location to serve a lot of customers and businesses.”
And it’s not that Belmont is bereft of cell towers. The Town of Homes has nine existing cell towers; two in Belmont Center (at Belmont Police headquarters and on top of Belmont Savings Bank), a giant tower adjacent to the new Highland Cemetery on Concord Avenue and one atop of 125 Trapelo Road in Cushing Square which handles the four largest cell providers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint).
“It’s not as if this is new technology to Belmont,” said Kassaraba.
If the church does decide to move forward, the would only need approval from the Planning Board to secure permission to place the cellular equipment into the steeple.
But for several in attendance, the cell tower on Pleasant Street is unnecessary and potentially harmful to those who will live within the most concentrated areas.
While saying she is for “progress,” for Elfriede Anderson, who has lived for 40 years on Pleasant Street, added “that I am also for health.” She contended that the cellular service is very good around Belmont Center – she conducts a great deal of business overseas with her mobile phone from home – and if the problem is calls being dropped in other parts of town, “they should put [a tower] up there.”
“I don’t think as a congregation that your mission should be above the health of the community,” said Anderson, who has been successfully treated for cancer.
Kassaraba countered by citing international, US and the town’s Health Board to claim that in the 15 years cell phone towers have proliferated, “there have been no adverse health impact.”
“We would not have considered this move if we had concerns of health issues,” said Kassaraba, noting that one is on the roof of a large and populated apartment building at the Hills Estates in east Belmont.
But critics point to a study that reportedly established a direct link between 7,000 cancer deaths in Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third largest city, with that city’s cell phone network.
Noting that there is a significant number of children who use the church for after-school studying and as a preschool, Annie Wang said that 15 years are likely too short of a time to determine if “many chronic diseases” will be triggered by the radio frequency fields used to transmit the data and calls to personal devices.
“It’s not enough time to determine the potential harm, in particular for children,” said Wang.
Dr. Don Haes, a radiation safety consultant working for the church, said the level of radio fields transmitted from the steeple tower – directed towards Belmont Center and along Pleasant Street – would be, at .08 watts per kilogram, less than 1 percent of what is allowed under current safety guidelines.
While few minds were made up by the end of the meeting, Kassaraba said the church’s objective for the meeting was to show the community “that we want this to be a transparent decision, that we did not want to exclude anyone who has concerns with the process.”