Citizen Petition Triggers Special Town Meeting Targeting Wireless Antennae at Plymouth Church

Photo: The Plymouth Congregational Church.

A group of residents, many who have led the effort to halt the installation of cellular antennae inside the steeple of Plymouth Congregational Church on Pleasant Street, have successfully filed a citizen’s petition that now requires the town to hold a Special Town Meeting in June aimed at placing a steep roadblock to the plans by the church and its telecommunication giant partner.

As the petitioners are pushing to add more stringent requirements on this and other future wireless projects, church leaders told the Belmontonian they are moving forward with a revised plan they anticipate will pass muster before a small governmental commission that is hearing the proposal.

The Special Town Meeting, which Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman said will likely take place on June 8 during the budget session of the annual Town Meeting, will ask Members to change the town’s bylaw on the installation of internal wireless telecommunications facilities.

The language of the petition – signed by 242 residents – seeks to modify the town’s current zoning bylaws in which smaller cell installations are currently “allowed by right” – in which no town oversight is needed to obtain a building permit – to requiring property owners to get a “special permit” before commencing work, “giving interested Belmont residents an opportunity to provide input to the deliberations of the Zoning Board of Appeal.”

Precinct 4’s Judith Sarno – who with Karen Herosian, Danny Morris and Ron Creamer sponsored the petition – said the petition is a “modest amendment to bring the zoning for wireless telecommunications facilities into the 21st century and offer residents a voice,” and not an attempt to disallow these operations from operating in Belmont.

“[We] are simply asking Town Meeting to allow for more transparency and some notice to concerned neighbors, by simply changing [the bylaw] to a Special Permit,” said Sarno.

Under the special permit requirement, a property owner would be required to present its plan before the Zoning Board of Appeals to demonstrate that a cell tower would not place a burden on the neighboring community. The new requirement would also require notification of neighbors and allow for comments from residents before the ZBA.

In recent rulings, the ZBA has demonstrated a propensity to rule against commercial proposals, from some small day care operations to larger enterprises including a hotel, a Dunkin Donuts franchise and placing stringent restrictions on individual homeowners who put their properties on the popular Airbnb room sharing website.

There are nine existing wireless cell facilities in Belmont; in Belmont Center, a large tower adjacent to the new Highland Cemetery on Concord Avenue and on 125 Trapelo Rd. in Cushing Square, which handles four of the biggest cell providers: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint.

The suggested change to the zoning bylaws after the church finalized an agreement with the telecommunication giant Verizon, which is about to present a revised plan to the Historic District Commission, which must OK any exterior structural changes to the steeple before the major construction can take place.

“Verizon will be presenting a revised design plan to remove the air-conditioning compressors and to retain the wooden louvers, thus eliminating the noise concerns of neighbors and preserving the current appearance of the steeple, respectively,” said 

Verizon has begun preliminary work in the area in January after the Planning Board approved the design and site plan review to place the antenna inside the steeple.

“As of now the work is related solely to Verizon and does not require a building permit,” Glenn Clancy, director of the Office of Community Development, told the Belmontonian in February.

“The Verizon work is allowed as it would be for any private property owner” with the owner taking the “risk onto themselves” if the permit is ultimately not issued, said Clancy.

From the church’s view, a majority of town residents will benefit from better cell reception.

“Town officials and Town Meeting members should take the actions that are appropriate to providing better-quality and reliable cell service to improve the ability of all its residents, visitors and businesses, alike, to conduct business, education and social interactions,” said Chet Messer, chair of the Board of Trustees of Plymouth Church.

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