WOBURN - Ignoring the applicant's request to pull the petition, the City Council this week denied Verizon Wireless a special permit to erect two 15-foot-tall antenna arrays on the top of the three-story Woburn Nursing Center complex by Mishawum Road.
During a meeting in City Hall this week, the aldermen briefly entertained a formal request from Cellco Partnership, a subsidiary of telecommunications giant Verizon Communications, to withdraw without prejudice its May application to place six panel antennas inside two faux chimney structures on the nursing home at 18 Frances Street.
However, the city officials, noting the uproar generated by the proposal in recent weeks, subsequently decided to still that neighborhood apprehension by unanimously denying the petition outright. In doing so, the council — absent a legal challenge and court ruling in Verizon Wireless' favor — guaranteed the petitioner can't reintroduce the special permit request for the next two years.
Situated roughly half-way between Woburn's Hammond Square and Central Square areas, the Woburn Nursing Center grounds sit in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood that abuts Woodbrook Cemetery and the intersection of Main Street and Mishawum Road.
Last month, the City Council caught its first glimpse of the wireless facility plans, which were met by the protests of various residential abutters.
According to Lynnfield attorney Daniel Klasnick, representing the wireless Internet and cell-phone service provider, his client needed to install the antenna arrays, as well as backup power sources and various "radio heads" and junction boxes, in order to address a "significant gap" in Verizon's coverage around the neighborhood.
"What we tried to do in the petition and application materials is provide an overwhelming amount of information substantiating the fact…that there's a proven need for wireless communication equipment in this area," the lawyer contended.
That terminology about a "significant gap" is an important legal distinction, as under federal regulations, cities and towns are forbidden from blocking providers from plugging those system deficiencies, which are generally defined as areas where there is either no phone service or a tendency for customers' calls to be dropped.
For decades now, court jurisdictions have repeatedly ruled in favor of those appealing local permit denials, when firms like Verizon Wireless are able to prove there is no other viable alternative to fixing purported coverage gaps.
Under the Woburn Nursing Center proposal, the antennas would have been disguised as rooftop chimneys that stood roughly 45-feet tall. Klasnick insisted Verizon officials had vetted roughly 100 other area properties, but all of those alternative locations were deemed insufficient to meet the corporation's needs.
"Every effort was made to take into consideration that this is located in a residential area. We built in the stealth features to allow it to blend into the architectural features of the building itself," Klasnick said last month of the fake chimneys.
According to a host of detractors, the panel antennas, no matter how cleverly disguised to look like part of the nursing center, would at 1.5 stories tall be an ugly and obtrusive addition to a residential neighborhood noted for its small historic homes.
Opponents also objected to Cellco Partership's plans to provide backup power to the installation by placing a a diesel-powered generator, to be shielded by a baffled cabinet, on a fire access road that winds around the perimeter of the nursing home.
"It does not belong in a residential neighborhood," said Mishawum Road resident Eileen Doherty.
Following a gathering late last month, aldermen on the Special Permits Committee formally recommended the full council reject the Cellco Partnership proposal.
Specifically, during that meeting, Special Permits Committee members, casting doubt on the petitioner's claims of a coverage gap, also challenged Klasnick's contention that there was no other viable location to erect a wireless installation.
The city officials further noted that Woburn Nursing Center, in allowing the installation of equipment on its fire access road, appeared to be violating the terms of its own special permit. Lastly, the city officials agreed with neighbors that the fake chimneys, standing some one-and-a-half stories high, were completely inconsistent with the character of the residential neighborhood.
In the days following those proceedings, Klasnick, in an apparent attempt to prevent the Woburn Nursing Home arrangement from being shelved for the next two years, formally asked the council to allow his client to withdraw the petition without prejudice.
At the outset of this week's gathering, Ward 2 Alderman Richard Gately, believing the applicant had recognized the proposal had a scant chance of ever being approved by the council, indicated his willingness to grant Klasnick's request.
"I don't believe they'll come back for this location. They don't have the support of the council or the residents," said the South End alderman.
Alderman at-large Michael Concannon, unwilling to risk a resubmittal, subsequently led the campaign to instead deny the petition. According to Concannon, since the council had already spent so much time contesting the merits of the Frances Street installation, he believed a denial of the special permit was in order.
"Generally speaking, when a petition is in its infancy and we haven't had much discussion or testimony, we do allow a withdrawal. However, in this case, I believe we've gone down that road [of vetting this proposal at-length]," said Concannon.
During last month's introductory hearing on the petition, Gately, voicing his unwavering opposition to the proposed wireless array, tried to convince his peers to reject the proposal without sending it to committee for further study.
Later becoming the lone alderman member to oppose the continuation of the public hearing, Gately last month could be heard muttering, 'It's a waste of our time," when his colleagues refused to deny the permits at once.
In light of that previous stance, it was little surprise that the Ward 2 alderman quickly joined with Concannon and the rest of the council in voting against the special permit this week.
The Woburn Nursing Center petition proved so controversial that City Council President Michael Anderson, who lives on Frances Street, exchanged his chairman's gavel last month for a seat in the audience, where he joined those speaking out against the plan.
Though local officials routinely recuse themselves from public hearings and other proceedings due to potential conflicts-of-interest, it is quite rare for board members to turn around and speak for or against a petition as a "private citizen".
During the same council deliberations, Ward 6 Alderman Edward Tedesco, who works for Woburn-based wireless infrastructure firm American Tower, also recused himself from the deliberations. Following the traditional protocol in such cases, Tedesco walked out of the council chambers for the duration of the proceedings.
Because two aldermen were not participating in the deliberations, Cellco Partnership faced an uphill battle in getting the petition approved, which would have required six of the seven remaining council members to vote in favor of the special permit.