Cell tower

READING – As crafted by Reading Town Counsel Ivria Fried, the motion was a reason to celebrate, even if the words hid the reason.

“Move to authorize the Town Manager to issue an RFP for the lease of a portion of the current water tank site for the temporary installation of a ballast tower for cell carriers and town equipment.”

There will be no corks popped at Town Hall over Tuesday night’s Select Board meeting. That will come when the Auburn Street water tower project is complete, probably years from now. But the 5-0 board vote in support of the motion was a victory for Reading officials as well as the fatigued neighbors tired of sparring with their town over the project.

The news behind the motion is that AT&T and T-Mobile have proposed building a 140-foot temporary ballast pole at the site during construction of the new water tower. It will hold not only Reading’s public safety equipment but also the cell carrier’s equipment.

“As I looked at the packet, I remember calling Bob and I kinda said, ‘so this looks like it’s going to address most of our concerns. Am I missing something?’ ” said Select Board chair Mark Dockser.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said board member Carlo Bacci.

Prior to Tuesday night, the town had already said it would build a temporary pole, costing between $250,000 and $500,000, just to hold Reading’s public safety equipment. The cell carriers were on their own to decide what to do with their equipment when the current water tower was torn down and until the new water tower was complete.

On March 4, town staff met with the cell carriers to discuss vacating the water tank during construction. That’s when T-Mobile and AT&T officially learned that Reading would not be providing a temporary tower to hold their equipment while the new tank was built.

In some ways it was a risky tactic. Last June the cell carriers had no interest in building a temporary cell tower, and town officials called the response to their Request for Proposals (RFP) “unresponsive.” If their response was the same today, Reading residents would see their cell coverage severely affected during construction.

While the water tank may seem like an issue contained to a few surrounding neighbors, the potential loss of cell coverage without this agreement would be huge. The Reading downtown area, schools from Joshua Eaton to RMHS, the library, and the train station area would all be affected if the carriers weren’t able to find a spot to put their equipment while the new tank was going to be built.

But with AT&T leading the way, it appears that concern is gone. It’s hard to know what changed between the unresponsive response of last summer and Tuesday night. Did the cell carriers construction budget change? Was losing cell coverage bad business? Could it be as simple as someone in Town Hall suggested, that maybe last summer they didn’t have a pole available and now they do? Or was it the many back-and-forth discussions between Town Engineer Ryan Percival and the cell carriers?

Town Manager Bob LeLacheur will soon issue an RFP for the ballast tower and it’s expected AT&T will bid on the project, with T-Mobile also contributing funding. It’s also possible a carrier like Verizon could bid.

The ballast pole is unlike what Reading planned to do, which was a concrete base attached to ledge at the site. Instead, the ballast pole is situated on crushed stone and can be installed and removed in days. There’s minimal disruption to the property and nothing is permanent.

Vanessa Alvarado asked if residents should be concerned about high winds and the possibility the 140-foot poll could fall on surrounding homes. The carrier reps said don’t worry.

“I have not seen any circumstance where a maintained pole has fallen from the base so that you have a full 140-foot laydown,” said attorney and AT&T representative Ed Pare. “They’re designed to code. We will over design this as we do with towers that we place next to buildings, on buildings, next to schools, on interstate highways.”

As a result of the agreement Tuesday the Select Board will have to call a special town meeting inside the annual Town Meeting to approve an additional warrant. That warrant will deal with the RFP for the temporary cell pole. And that means an additional meeting for the Select Board, already penciled in for next Tuesday.

“I’d like to express our appreciation on behalf of AT&T to the entire board for hearing us out, being concerned about maintaining coverage,” said Pare.

There’s much work ahead and area residents will still be on alert. Soil remediation, money for a different color for the tank, the potential for a park along Beacon Street, are all questions still to be addressed. But Tuesday’s news means a major hurdle has been cleared.

The 4 ½-hour meeting wasn’t all about the water tower.

The Select Board voted 5-0 to add the position of health director to the FY21 classification schedule. This move will make it easier for the town to start the hiring process for a ninth department head. The health director would join the police chief and the fire chief as one of the three department heads under the public safety portion of the town budget.

The town will soon advertise for the position but without the Select Board vote applicants would look at the FY21 budget and town structure and not see the position. With Town Meeting approval needed on April 26, LeLacheur will wait to hire anyone until after the assembly. If a health director is hired and can start before FY22 starts on July 1, the town has money in the FY21 budget to allow for the early start.

Town Clerk Laura Gemme appeared to update the board on the upcoming town election on April 6. She said mail-in ballots are available on the town website by clicking on departments and then elections. Find the application and make sure it’s signed before returning to Town Hall. March 31 is the deadline for requesting a mail-in ballot. Information on absentee ballots is also available on the same site.

The board voted, 5-0, to proclaim April 30 as Arbor Day in Reading. The Arbor Day declaration is one of the four standards for Reading to qualify as a Tree City USA community.

The board approved Sharon Angstrom as the town’s accountant for another year. Her term was set to expire March 31.

“She’s exceptional and keeps us on the right path,” said Dockser.

David Zeek, chair of the Climate Advisory Committee, appeared before the board in support of a biomass policy recommendation. While the Reading Municipal Light Department Board of Commissioners voted in February against the purchase of wood-burning biomass energy, Zeek and the CAC felt it was important for the town to take a stand against the use of biomass and the board agreed, 5-0.

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