Residents Seek to Halt Cell Tower In Church Steeple; Town: ‘We Are On Solid Ground’

Photo: Attorney Ted Hess-Mahan (standing) addressing the Historic District Commission with Pleasant Street resident Glenn Herosian (seating, right) listening.

“Simple fairness.”

For Glenn Herosian, that is the primary reason he and many of his neighbors are aggressively averse to a cellular network’s antenna in the steeple of the Plymouth Congregational Church on Pleasant Street.

The lack of fairness Herosian refers to is the perception the town is allowing the church to skirt the rigid design and material guidelines enforced on every structure within the historic district for a second time in three years.

“[The church] thinks they can bowl everyone over, and they’re not going to do it this time,” the Pleasant Street resident told the Belmontonian who, along with two dozen supporters, came before the Historic District Commission on Tuesday, Feb. 9 to preview their opposition to the church’s anticipated request to the commission at its March meeting where it and the telecommunication giant Verizon “hopes to continue the historic degradation of the church.”

The protestors complaints come the same week contractors hired by telecommunication firm Verizon were performing non-specific construction on the steeple to prepare it for the installation of a cellular antenna system, which the complainants contend is being done without a proper building permit.

While Herosian and his supporters believe the current work is in violation of the state building code, the town department says the church can move forward with the work.

“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 Wednesday, Feb. 10.,

“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. 

For Hersoian and the 95 residents who have signed a petition supporting his efforts – he said he will have more than 150 by next month – the Historic District Commission is seen by the church’s abutters and neighbors as their final bulwark against the proposed alterations.

Last month, the Belmont Planning Board approved the design and site plan review to place the antenna inside the structure which Rev. Joseph Zarro, Plymouth’s spiritual leader, in 2014 said would be a “win-win” for the church and community.

The Planning Board did include a condition to its opinion in which the Historic Commission is to review the proposal before a building permit is issued. 

With that caveat in hand, Herosian and his supporters are seeking to sway the Commission to invalidate the Planning Board’s approval by agreeing that the building’s aesthetics will be further compromised if the work the church outlined to the Planning Board is allowed to proceed. 

“They are taking an incredibly important landmark that the town has in the Historic District and are degrading it,” said Herosian. 

For the cellular equipment to function properly will require the existing louvers (wooden shutters with horizontal slats) to be replaced with fiberglass replicas, compounding what Herosian called the “degradation” of the building when the commission approved – against evidence from preservation experts – replacement columns and railings in August 2013  he said was made with composite material and “cheap” plastic covering that has not weathered well over the past three years. 

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Herosian, who lives with his wife, Karen, in a 60-year-old renovated custom ranch across Pleasant Street from the church, said he looks at the church out his sweeping front window every day wondering how a landmark was allowed to make major renovations outside the strict regulations imposed on all property owners.

“We went through the same historic district review, and it saved us from ourselves,” said Herosian as suggestions and rules resulted in a better design and project on his house.

“If this is allowed to stand this will likely have a devastating adverse impact on the fabric of our community, the entire Pleasant Street Historic District and the Belmont Historic Commission itself,” said Ted Hess-Mahan, the Herosian’s attorney who presented their case to the commission.

While the protestors are seeking the reversal of the 2013 Commission decision on the columns and railings as well as a denial of the current changes, Commission Chair Joseph Cornish said overturning an existing ruling “has never happened in our history.”

Herosian said he hoped to work with the church in securing Community Preservation Commission funds to repair and return the building “to its original beauty.” 

The church’s governing board said in a 2014 article in the Belmontonian that a long-term lease – typically lasting more than 20 years and can bring in up to $2,000 to $4,000 a month in rent – will allow the church to renovate the building and expand social service activities. It is not known the contents of the contract signed between Verizon and the church. 

Also, Clancy believes the church and town have done their due diligence on all possible objections, referring to the approvals by the Planning Board in January and three years ago from the Historic District Commission. 

“We are aware of the allegations. I think the Town is on solid ground,” said Clancy.

But Herosian is adamant that supporters will not be pushed aside and ignored as, he claims, opponents were during the Planning Board decision. He has filed a formal complaint against the town stating that required mailed notification of the hearing to abutters was not delivered to several neighbors, reportedly due to errors in the addresses on mailers.

Herosian is seeking the reopening of the Planning Board hearing to allow additional information to be submitted and voicing opinions from the neighborhood. 

But for now, Herosian focus is square on the Historic District Commission.

“This is far from over,” he said.

Letter to the Editor: Concerns Continue with Proposed Cell Tower

Editor’s note: This is a letter sent to Joseph Zarro, pastor of Plymouth Church on Pleasant Street that the author wished to share with the community as a letter to the editor.

Dear Reverend Zarro,

According to recent articles in the Belmontonian and the Belmont Citizen Herald, your organization is considering the siting of high power, cellular/mobile antennas in the steeple of the Plymouth Church in our neighborhood. According to the Belmontonian, your church would use the monthly payments from Verizon and AT&T to “support our lofty goals of our mission.” Further, one article quotes your spokesperson as saying “we would not have considered this move if we had concerns of health issues,” noting that there are other, existing cell tower installations in Belmont and he goes as far to conclude that in the 15 years that cell phone towers have proliferated, “there have been no adverse health impact.”

I fear that this may be a dangerous oversimplification of the problem. The “Telecommunications Act of 1996” which fast tracked cell phone tower siting is 18 years old. The studies that wireless proponents quote most often regarding the benign nature of cell phone towers and their effects on health were concluded before 2006. The iPhone wasn’t released until June of 2007 and the smartphone revolution that followed changed the entire cellular and wireless industry. Before 2007, cellular phone traffic was primarily for sporadic voice conversations. What data standards that existed at the time, were very slow. Over the last seven years, it has become commonplace to share photos, view videos and movies, and continuously stream music. Even when we’re not using our phones or tablets, they continue to communicate with the cell towers, alerting us of weather updates, emails, text messages, or other updates from social media. According to networking industry giant Cisco Systems, “Mobile data traffic in the U.S. will be 687 times greater in 2017 than it was in 2007.” This “687 times” represents an order of magnitude more data traffic and RF activity than when most quoted studies were concluded.

Moreover, the goalposts of what we measure for RF output appear to be moving, making comparisons to 2007 deceptive. Since then, a given tower’s antenna now divides the radio frequency into many more “channels.” Each of these channels carrying the “safe” amount of power one is told. However, in the aggregate, a given tower is putting out much more total power.

Many proponents talk about how the antennas are situated so high on a tower, and they are angled such that very little radiation reaches the ground due to the signal’s rapid attenuation. In the specific case of the Plymouth Church’s steeple, it’s not a hundred-foot tower looking down on flat ground. No, you’d be locating the cell antennas in your modestly high steeple, which in turn is located on a steep hill. Your steeple doesn’t look so high from directly across the street on Somerset Street. In fact, just up Somerset, your neighbors actually look down at your steeple. Have you considered the potential effects of cell antenna radiation from your particular, unusual situation on the families living there?

My point is that the science is incomplete and that the circumstances beg for an abundance of caution. We’re clearly in a new era and today’s concerns go far beyond cancer. Many are now concerned of the detrimental cognitive and memory effects this radiation has on people, and in children in particular. In fact, the Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College in London just embarked on a $1.7 million study of the “effect of mobile phones on children’s cognitive development.” Also, Dr. David O. Carpenter, M.D. and Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany claims that “Human studies on the health impacts of Radio Frequency (RF)/Microwave (MW) radiation have found changes in brain function including memory loss, retarded learning, performance impairment in children, headaches and neurological degenerative conditions, melatonin suppression and sleep disorders, fatigue, hormonal imbalances” and much more.

It’s widely believed that due to the less-developed skulls in our children, they are far more susceptible to the harmful effects of RF waves than adults. Yet you would have the neighborhood children and the children of the Plymouth Nursery School, which is run out of your basement exposed to the continual bombardment of this RF energy?

Reverend Joe, this doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t pass the “common sense” test and I ask you to reconsider. Your website talks of your commitment to the community. By latest count, your local community, as defined by those of us who live within a few hundred yards of Plymouth Church, are overwhelmingly (greater than 90 percent) opposed to the cell tower idea. Please listen to us.

Ronald A Creamer Jr
Neighbor, Concerned Parent

Plymouth Ponders Renting Its Steeple to House Cell Tower

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.IMG_1428

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, 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.”