Photo: Joe Zarro, pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church.
To our neighbors and friends in Belmont:
Over the past two years, the members of Plymouth Congregational Church have considered proposals from multiple carriers to install cell antennas in our church steeple. There are immediate benefits to the community from this installation:
- improved reception in the town center and area neighborhoods,
- improved access to emergency services from people without landlines in the home,
- improved wireless for health and other devices, and
- an interior installation that is not visible from the street and neighborhood.
We have one current lease agreement with Verizon, and Verizon has pursued approvals in accordance with town laws and regulatory processes. Our neighborhood discussions made clear that some people objected, mostly on health grounds. Town boards have made clear that health cannot be a reason to deny permits in this case. Multiple health professionals and scientists in our church and this community have assured us of the safety of these antennas. Experts have assured us that these antennas are safe and well within existing standards. Multiple residential and commercial buildings have these antennas in Belmont and surrounding towns, hospitals, educational and other institutions. It is not an experimental technology, but something that has been implemented worldwide for decades.
Plymouth leadership wrote abutters Danny Morris, Ron Creamer and Glenn Herosian, who claim leadership in a group opposed to our project, in January telling them we did not think Community Preservation Act funds were an appropriate or realistic source of funds for the church, but that we were happy to meet to share our research and decision-making. They would not meet with us unless we abandoned the project, a demand we considered unreasonable.
Their recent charge that because of this lease we are not a church, but a cell phone business, is simply wrong. We are being singled out because we are a house of worship. Belmont Savings Bank is still a bank with antennas at their main branch. 55 Hill Rd. is still an apartment building (far more densely populated) with its antennas. The Belmont Police Station in Belmont Center is still a police station with its antenna installation. We will still very much be a church.
Plymouth will be far from the first church to enter into a lease with a telecommunications company: Trinitarian Congregational Church in Concord is a nearby example of a historic building, in a historic district, with a nursery school, which has antennas hidden away in a similar manner.
Plymouth has been part of this community since 1899, and our commitment to mission and ministry here is much deeper than a couple hours of worship on Sunday morning. We support the Belmont Food Pantry, food assistance at the Farmer’s Market and the annual community-wide Belmont Serves. We run a soup ministry out of our kitchen for the homeless and for those in transient housing. I’m president of the Belmont Religious Council and work with other houses of worship to address important issues, such as assistance for refugees being resettled in Massachusetts. Support for these kinds of ministries was in our minds when we signed the lease with Verizon. Our 2016 church budget will give away more than $40,000 to our mission partners, more than we receive from this lease and more than enough to paint the church steeple, for which Creamer and Herosian propose we use CPA funds. We are not a dying congregation trying to keep the lights on; this has always been about doing more as a faith community.
We regret that a small minority of our neighbors have resorted to tactics like questioning our integrity as a church simply because they disagree with the church’s decision to lease space to Verizon. Angry letters have been put on parishioners cars while they are in worship, and I was jeered at by two neighbors when leaving the May 3 Planning Board meeting.
I am saddened that a church like ours, filled with good-hearted people trying to do what is best, has not been afforded more respect during this process. We hope that peace can be restored to our neighborhood and that civility can prevail going forward.
Rev. Joe Zarro
Pastor, Plymouth Congregational Church
Photo: Plymouth Congregational Church on Pleasant Street.
Ron Creamer did not mince words.
In the view of the Pleasant Street resident, what occurs inside the historic Plymouth Congregation Church on Sundays no longer represents the main purpose of the long-time house of worship.
When told by the chair of the Belmont Historic District Commission that for federal oversight review to halt the placement of telecommunication equipment in the Pleasant Street church’s steeple, opponents would need to show how an interior cellular tower would “change the character [of Plymouth Congregation] in a “fairly major” way, Cramer responded by declaring the congregation’s pursuit of thousands of dollars in rental fees from telecommunication giant Verizon Wireless is transforming the church “from a religious institution into a cell phone business.”
“It’s a significant change” of what church was initially built to be, Creamer told the commission, a statement the chair, Lauren Meier, deemed “subjective.”
The rather strident proclamation – reiterated later by another leader of nearly 250 neighbors who currently oppose the plan on aesthetic and health reasons – came at the tail end of Tuesday night’s meeting which saw yet another barrier to Verizon’s plan to place an array of antennas in Plymouth Congregational’s white steeple fall to the wayside.
On Tuesday, Verizon’s attorney Mike Giaimo of Boston’s Robinson & Cole presented the six-member commission a set of new plans – approved by the Planning Board a fortnight before – which no longer required modifications to the exterior of the steeple. Earlier proposals called for removing wooden louvers and creating openings in the steeple.
Since the purview of the Historic District Commission is to investigate and question exterior changes that can be seen from the public way, the commission determined it had no standing to question the revised plans and was left with little to do than simply sign off on the project using either a certificate of appropriateness or one of non-applicability.
Once the project has received the OK from all town bodies, a building permit could then be issued when requested, Glenn Clancy, director of the Office of Community Development, noted earlier this year.
While Verizon was seeking a quick resolution, the commission pondered whether to hold a public meeting in June before issuing the notice, which Giaimo was adamant was unnecessary and that the certificate be issued sooner-than-later.
Glenn Herosian, one of leaders of the opposition and who lives across Pleasant Street from the church, sought answers to the Verizon design changes. Herosian said he was concerned the removal of an air condition unit to cool the equipment could possibly do long-term damage to the structure, which then could affect the overall integrity of the steeple.
But Verizon’s Giaimo would not take the bait, saying he would only speak on the items on the Historic Commission’s agenda, despite Meier’s pleas that it would be “polite” if he or the Verizon representatives would speak on the neighbors’ worries.
In the end, Meier said the committee would work with Community Development on the necessity for a public meeting.
Tuesday was also an opportunity for Verizon to proceed with a Section 106 review mandated in the requires consideration of historic preservation in the multitude of projects with federal involvement, such as the Federal Communications Commission which licenses telecommunication operations.
While usually a fairly standard appraisal – Meier said she had done “hundreds” in her 30-year career – Creamer took the opportunity to fire questions at the employee of EBI Consulting, which manages the Section 106 processes for Verizon, resulting in a rhetorical exercise of competing interpretations of the review.
Creamer soon directed the commission’s attention to the section of the review that specified how a project could be altered that would diminish the integrity of the property, approaching Meier to show a screen on his cell phone asking if she agreed that “change in the character of the property’s use or setting” would trigger federal involvement and a lengthy public process of gathering information and actions.
After contending the church should not be viewed as a structure of worship but of commerce, Creamer noted that the religious component for the church is “only a few hours a week” while the cell tower transmits continuously.
For the opponents of the project, any means of delaying the installation of the equipment is seen as beneficial to their cause as the number of process roadblocks has dwindled to nearly zero.
The neighbors are now pinning their hopes of halting the interior cell tower with a favorable Special Town Meeting. Initiated via a citizen’s petition, the opponents are seeking a change to zoning bylaws to require telecommunication firms to obtain a Special Permit to install an interior cell tower throughout most of Belmont.
The opponents believe forcing an application before the Zoning Board of Appeals – which has been highly suspected of high profile businesses entering Belmont – will effectively add months to the process as the neighbors, according to Herosian, are prepared to present a significant amount of technical and scientific data before the ZBA, challenging existing federal standards on radiofrequency levels.
In addition, Herosian said the neighbors will ask the Belmont Board of Selectmen to hire a technical expert to determine the adverse effects of cellular transmission in a densely populated residential area.
Herosian said since the church initially broached the idea of placing mobile communication equipment in the steeple, the neighbors have been eager to help the church secure funds to allow it to continue its social ministry and discussed partnering the church leaders to approach the town to use Community Reinvestment Committee grants to repair and upgrade the building.
“But they never came back to us with an answer,” Herosian told the Belmontonian after the meeting.
“They’ve turned their backs to their neighbors and our real concerns.”
[Editor’s note: With the successful citizen’s petition, a Special Town Meeting – the date sometime in June to be determined by the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday, May 4 – will be convened to debate changing the zoning bylaw to require the installation of interior wireless telecommunication antennae to obtain a special permit rather than the current zoning distinction of an “as of right.” This change would specifically place a greater burden on the attempt by Verizon to place a cell antennae inside the steeple of the Plymouth Congregational Church on Pleasant Street. Currently, a significant number of neighbors to the church are protesting the partnership and the communications device. Belmont are two opinions on the matter, both from Pleasant Street.]
Some comments were shortened.
I write to my neighbors, the Plymouth Congregational Church, and the Belmont community after watching and reading our neighborhood protest for almost six months. It is important to me to write a note that all three groups can read.
With a little bit discussion with experts and reading, it is easy to come to the conclusion that cell towers provide less exposure to microwaves than cell phones, about 5 to 10 times less, and the World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society think there is very little evidence to support the idea that living, working, or going to school near a cell phone tower might increase the risk of cancer or other health problems.
But these facts are not relevant, my neighbors are afraid, and do not want any additional microwave exposure. In opposition to my neighbor’s fear and concern are the needs of Plymouth Congregational Church. The Church needs the income from the Verizon cell tower to continue its existence and mission. Neither group has communicated with the other effectively.
It appears to me that the tone of protest has become increasingly acrimonious without cause. The fear, acrimony, and misunderstanding can be reduced by meeting and talking. The time to sit on the sidelines has passed. The Pleasant Street neighborhood and the Plymouth Congregational Church need to put their fears aside, talk with one another and work toward a resolution of the respective issues.
The following note will address four issues in more detail. I am going to start with my understanding of the physics and the health issues, “The Science;” then move on to a discussion of “My Neighbors Are Angry and Afraid;” followed by “The Church Is Stuck;” and lastly present “My Position.”
My conclusion from the science is that we have little to fear from having a cell phone transmitter in the Church steeple. More importantly, the American Cancer Society also thinks so. There is very little evidence to support the idea that living, working, or going to school near a cell phone tower might increase the risk of cancer or other health problems.
Although the science and rational thinking are important, the facts on the ground are more often governed by feelings and politics, so let’s talk about the Pleasant Street neighborhood and the Plymouth Congregation Church parish.
My Neighbors Are Angry and Afraid
Again, from my point of view, my friends and neighbors are genuinely frightened of the consequences of the exposure to cell tower radiation. The science and rational approach be dammed, this is an unwanted excess exposure and they are afraid of the consequences. The duration and vigor of the neighborhood protest is a testament to the anger and fear.
The protest has been going on for about six months that I know about, but I was told that it started almost a year ago. The neighbors have communicated in many ways. The Pleasant Street residents have:
- Written articles that were printed in the Belmont newspaper about the Church and its intent to host a Verizon cell tower in its steeple.
- Written about the Church parish and its clergy and management.
- Campaigned within the extended Pleasant Street community to consolidate a common position against the Verizon cell tower.
- Posted a Facebook page about the cell tower, church, and potential effects.
- Printed and posted a variety of signs, some printed, some individual handiwork.
- Written and distributed flyers.
It has been a vigorous, vociferous, extended, and sometimes unkind campaign. Yet to my knowledge there has been no direct contact between the Pleasant Street neighbors and the Plymouth Congregational Church (parishioners, managers, or clergy). Neither have I heard, read, or seen the voice of the church community as an advocate for the Verizon cell tower, but they are continuing to move forward with their effort to obtain cell tower approval.
The Church is Stuck
The other half of the equation is the neighborhood Plymouth Congregational Church parish. I do not know, but I think that the parish is in financial decline. It must use its physical plant to keep itself financially viable. Tithing and additional donations from the parishioners is insufficient to keep it in good financial order. So, it rents space for daycare, education, and social events that apparently is not enough. I was told by a parishioner that the parish was approached by Verizon with a cell tower contract offer that would provide an additional revenue stream for the length of the contract. This extra-parochial revenue may or may not be enough to keep the Church in good order, but it would help. I speculate that the contract with Verizon is probably between $2,000 and $3,000 a month for 12 months for 15 years which amounts to more than $360,000. The money from the contract would be available for any parish expense and would probably solve their cash flow issues.
The Church is stuck. It lives in a community that it wants to serve. It has insufficient resources to take care of the Church plant and the activities of the parish. It is trying to do good work; trying to survive: serve it parish, neighborhood and the Belmont community. It is hunkered down, but continuing to move forward toward its objective.
My neighbors are important to me. As I get older, it is increasingly important to be surrounded by a community of friends and well-meaning neighbors. My spouse and I are acquainted with everyone in the neighborhood and know many of them well enough to call them friends. But we are not afraid of cell phones or cell towers and find ourselves misaligned with the protest and much of the communication.
To add to our misalignment, we know some of the parishioners and have been neighbors with the Plymouth Congregational Church for 30 years. We know about some of the good works the parish has done over those years and view the church as a good neighbor.
The time has come to state my position. I believe in science and public policy based on scientific facts and rational thinking. I believe in direct communication. I believe in civil (sometimes you have to shout to be heard) and respectful discourse. To be more direct: I think the Church and the Pleasant Street neighborhood should talk to one another. The two groups need to figure out a pathway forward with the cell tower.
We all appreciate your desire to promote a resolution of the dispute in our neighborhood. However, your timely commentary reads more like a well-coached spin from a political consultant hired by the church rather than an appeal from a concerned neighbor. Why would you write this sincere appeal to the local press?
Your neighbors are understandably fearful of the ill-defined and involuntary Radiofrequency (RF) radiation about to be thrust into our kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms. But we are far from ignorant about Verizon’s plans for its steeple. Rather, we are outraged by the church’s insensitivity to its neighbors and use of its non-profit status to transform a place of worship into a cell phone tower ”business.” Between congregation donations, probable Community Preservation Act funding, and current monthly rents from numerous tenants, the church’s financial needs could be satisfied without creating controversy and discord in its own neighborhood.
Unfortunately, we continue to see mischief from Verizon as it submits misleading applications and times its actions to avoid public discussion.
Your treatise on “the Science” mentions the appropriate RF formulas but also echoes the inaccurate mantra of the church that our occasional use of cell phones is more harmful than the continuous exposure from high powered antennas. Your example underestimates the impact of these antennas as well as the actual duration and cumulative effect on those 23 families within the red zone. The one key difference between a cell phone and base station emissions is that we can all turn off our cell phones to limit our exposure. We do not have that option to control the output of a continuously-radiating cluster of antennas hidden less than 100 feet from our childrens’ bedrooms.
Despite your assurances, parents of children in the neighborhood take a precautionary approach to the radiation emitting from the cell phone antennas much as they would with any other danger to their children. Not one of the church’s congregation lives within the high exposure range of the Plymouth Church’s antennas.
On January 15, eight of us stood outside the church and politely shared information about the availability of CPA funds and our willingness to work with the church. I do not believe that the church is “stuck,” nor would I generalize without facts about its financial condition. The church has some prominent members who could have guided their congregation toward CPA funding to preserve its building, leaving its other income to support its ministry. Unfortunately, church leaders have demonstrated little interest in CPA funds or restoring harmony in the neighborhood.
Let’s remember to consider the financial impact on the town. With Belmont financially “stuck’ by the long term funding for a new high school and library, putting the cell tower on town property and receiving Verizon’s monthly cell tower fee would help a far greater number of Belmont citizens than just those attending the church. Cell phone base stations also devalue neighboring property. The combined property devaluation and loss in real estate tax revenue could total millions and hurt the town even more.
Our group’s position is that the church should continue doing its “good work” and be a place of worship rather than becoming a cell phone business that disregards the legitimate concerns of the families living around it. We understand the “science” of our cell phones, but cannot blindly trust incomplete scientific research distorted by powerful cell phone lobbies. The win-win solution is for the Church to obtain CPA funds and Verizon to locate the antennas in a less-dense residential area to help restore harmony to our neighborhood.
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.
[Editor’s note: The Belmont Historic District Commission will hear from Glenn Herosian and Ron Creamer as the commission continues discussion of Plymouth Congregational Church on Tuesday, March 8 at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.]
To the editor:
The Plymouth Congregational Church is the single important and centrally-located building in Belmont’s Pleasant Street Historic District (BHDC). Its commanding steeple and symmetrical buildings are a visual focal point for the neighborhood and visitors passing through Belmont. The Church represents an important style piece that holds together and defines the diverse historic fabric of the district.
Fortunately, the church falls under the strict “Design Guidelines of the Belmont Historic District.” Despite these safeguards, the threat of losing this historic building remains a deep neighborhood concern after the unfortunate demolition of the Waverly Congregational Church. The town’s Demolition Delay Bylaw was enacted as a reaction to this emotional loss for the Waverly community. However, this bylaw will not be enough to keep the same fate from happening to the Plymouth Church should the congregation weaken or relocate in future years.
Our neighborhood group insists that the BHDC enforce its stringent guidelines and follow its documented policy of allowing only the use of original wood materials in all necessary changes to the church’s exterior.
We demand the immediate action by the church and the BHDC to maintain and preserve the building’s architecturally-important details with a strict interpretation of its design bylaws without compromise. As the heart of the Historic District and the gateway used by innumerable citizens to access many conservation areas and town center, the church and the BHDC has a responsibility to its citizens to preserve the historical integrity of this church and maintain the harmony of this community.
The Neighborhood Group Against the Plymouth Church Cell Phone Tower