READING – As Mark Delaney and Jackie McCarthy stated their case Friday, the water tower loomed over their Beacon Street home. The 110-foot tower, a fixture since 1953, is as much a neighbor as the residents on their street, and surrounding streets like Auburn and Chestnut.

Delaney and McCarthy have no issue with the water tower or the cell equipment attached to it. But the plan Reading Town Manager Bob LeLacheur proposed and the Select Board agreed to in June, is another issue entirely.

Delaney has lived at 26 Beacon Street for 15 years. He and McCarthy were married three years ago and together they are formidable opponents for all those at Town Hall seeking to build a cell tower. Both are lawyers as well as lobbyists and both are well versed in getting their point across.

Replacing the water tower has been on the town’s to-do list for years.

Today, a complicated issue comes down to this. In 2018 the town said it planned to replace the water tower and when finished, put the cell equipment back on the water tower. But in 2020, that’s all changed and the plan discussed at the June Select Board meeting involved replacing the water tower but then building a separate cell tower a few feet away.

Neighbors are furious with the new plan and not just because of the separate cell tower. They also feel deceived by the town after not hearing a word about the plan until reading about it in the paper. The result was almost 50 emails sent to the Select Board and included in the Sept. 8 meeting packet. It will come to a head at Tuesday’s Select Board meeting when Delaney and McCarthy, among others, will speak in opposition to the town’s plan to build a cell tower just steps from their front door.

“We were stunned,” said Delaney of the town’s plan to build the tower. “After that (2018) meeting, we figured this issue was settled. It wasn’t until two weeks approximately after the June meeting that a neighbor caught an article in a newspaper (July 8, Reading Chronicle) about this cell tower. That’s the first time we learned that the Town Manager had completely reversed what he told everybody in 2018. He didn’t notify anyone in the neighborhood that he had put this on the agenda in the middle of a pandemic. All of us had been put to sleep on this issue since 2018. That’s when the emails from us began.”

Watch that July 10, 2018 Select Board meeting and two things are clear. First, four of the five board members are no longer on the board. Only Vanessa Alvarado remains, meaning whatever direction the board was leaning then doesn’t matter today. Second, the town was primarily interested in replacing the water tower. Cell coverage, including a potential cell tower, was up to the carriers and a discussion for a later date.

“I am proposing and have decided, unless the board objects, to split those two ideas in half,” said Town Manager Bob LeLacheur of the water tower and cell coverage two years ago. “We will work on the water tower. We have to work on the water tower. Which will be in approximately the same footprint and approximately the same size … if those telecom companies wish to build a cell tower, they do it. They have to go through the process, ask us, ask the neighbors, so on and so forth. We are just now proposing to deal with the water tank.”

“We’ve made the decision to replace the tank and put the [cell] carriers back on the tank,” said Town Engineer Ryan Percival in 2018.

So, what changed?

For starters, the town’s focus in 2018 was almost entirely on replacing the water tower. It was a discussion that started in 2012 and was long overdue. “We have to do this as soon as possible,” said Percivable in 2018.

But that didn’t mean the possibility of a cell tower was out of the question, as some neighbors might have thought. LeLachuer and Percival both talked of having a discussion with the carriers. Alvarado said a cell tower, “may or may not happen.” And Percival said the carriers would prefer to have their equipment on a cell tower rather than a water tower.

Secondly, a town building security study strongly recommended, “no equipment be on this tank from a security standpoint,” said LeLacheur in June.

With knowledge that cell carriers preferred a tower, and that security experts advised against equipment on the tank, LeLachuer and Percival returned to the Select Board in June asking for guidance. The two said they felt boxed in, and Percival added, “we’ve exhausted all the options.” The discussion at the June 16 meeting focused not on “if” the area needed a cell tower, but what kind, either temporary or permanent. With the temporary option making little sense, the Select Board agreed with LeLachuer and Percival that a permanent cell tower was the best option.

It was just a matter of time until residents found out.

“If the process hasn’t been bad up until now, it’s about to get a lot worse if this town manager is allowed to move forward the way he wants to move forward,” said Delaney. “They’re totally contradicting what he said in 2018 … He reversed himself in the middle of a pandemic and didn’t tell anybody. I’m not too happy with the way he has conducted himself and the things he has done to bring this issue back before this town this way. It’s wrong.”

He added that it’s wrong to say cell carriers would prefer a new tower over attaching to an existing structure.

“That is completely wrong. Cell carriers look for these structures. They don’t want to build cell towers if structures like this are available.,” said Delaney. “If they can attach their antennas to an existing structure, that’s the most cost-effective way for them to provide coverage.”

One concern of Delaney and McCarthy is that town will go ahead and build the cell tower without hearings and public input. Legally, the town could do that.

“If the carriers said we’re going to build the cell tower here they’d have to go thru the permitting process. There would be a process. They’d have to go through the planning board. If they needed zoning relief, they’d have to go thru the ZBA. Abutters get notice of that. There are hearings and opportunities for people to speak on that. There are opportunities for the town to work with carriers on alternatives to that. If the town manager has his way, that process is eliminated. There is no process,” said Delaney.

But LeLachuer said in an email Wednesday, he wouldn’t do that. He explained that since he became Town Manager he’s followed, “the same path a private organization would,” and pointed to the Library project in 2015-16. The library went through the formal CPDC planning process even though it wasn’t required.

While no one on the Select Board questioned the building security study conclusions, Delaney and McCarthy did.

“For over 21 years to my knowledge there hasn’t been one issue raised about security,” said Delaney. “There are ways to address security if the Town Manager is serious. One of those ways is, you’re designing a new water tank. Have you talked to the designers about incorporating security measures? Secondly, you have leases with carriers. Why wouldn’t those leases include liability provisions? Why wouldn’t you address security protocols in that agreement?

“The town manager cited a security study as a reason for this concern. Then he sent out an RFP with $2 ½ million to address security issues on town properties, including surveillance cameras and motion detectors. This tower wasn’t included in that expenditure. Why wasn’t the tower incorporated into the $2 ½ million RFP he just issued to address security issues on town property?”

Of the numerous emails sent to the town and included in that Sept. 8 packet, many said putting a cell tower in a residential neighborhood was wrong. But LeLachuer said in June it was the only option.

“We explored every part of town for another location that wasn’t residential and it just doesn’t exist.”

Read and/or listen to enough cell tower opinions and you’ll hear about 200-foot towers, 190-foot towers, and 165-foot towers. Dan Ensminger at the 2018 board meeting even mentioned a 140-foot tower.

“In 2018 the tower proposed was 165 feet. In June of 2020, the town manager, after reversing himself, had a proposal for a 200-foot cell tower,” said Delaney. “Part of the rationale he gave for the difference in height is that some residents complained about health concerns. Which we never complained about. Now the antennas are going to be further away from people in the neighborhood to address these health concerns raised by some neighbors.”

“Our argument would not change if we heard from the town manager that ‘we’re building a 120-foot tower.’ The same rationale still applies and the same impact applies,” said McCarthy.

In a Sept. 8 email, Percival said all talk of cell tower heights is premature.

“There is currently no cell tower designed or funded,” said Percival. “We are looking into the town’s options. If a temporary or permanent tower does go up it has to be higher than the tank because the tank is a signal obstruction.”

Regardless of the height, Delaney and McCarthy say Reading shouldn’t be in the cell tower business.

“Who’s responsible for cell coverage? It’s not town of Reading, it’s the cell carriers. It’s how they make money. Building out the network is on them. They’ll invest money in that infrastructure where it’s needed and where it gets a return,” said Delaney. “This is completely flipped on its head. I haven’t seen one document from any cell carrier that they’re going to have issues with coverage when those antennas come off, or an application to build a cell tower on the site. It’s the Town Manager driving this thing for over four years now. I don’t understand it, especially when we have a cell tower right here.”

That tower is somewhat hidden as Delaney and McCarthy make their case. That will soon change.

“All these leaves are going to be down very shortly and the view is going to be very different,” said Delaney. “Beside that (water tower), you add a structure that’s going to be twice as high, it’s going to change the character of this neighborhood in a very real way. Imagine walking out your front door and instead of seeing a house there, you see a 200-foot metal structure standing there. Not only will it change the character of the neighborhood, now it affects everyone’s property value.”

Delaney and McCarthy are ready for a fight. Their message to the Reading Select Board Tuesday should be simple. Stick with the 2018 plan.

1. Take the cell equipment off.

2. Take the water tower down.

3. Build a new water tower.

4. Put the cell equipment back on.

“We have no problem with that,” said Delaney.

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