MIDDLESEX - Reading officials recently cited the controversy as a quite ironic example of a communications breakdown over a plan to maintain the community’s physical communication networks.
Late last month, Reading’s Select Board, after reviewing dozens of letters and getting quite the earful from frustrated citizens, ordered Town Manager Robert LeLacheur and other Town Hall managers to shelve plans to construct a new cell-tower nearby Reading’s 63-year-old elevated water storage tank.
“We need to treat our neighbors and our citizens better than this,” remarked Select Board member Karen Herrick at the conclusion of last month’s meeting, an hours-long public hearing where angry abutters complained they were never consulted by town leaders about the construction plans.
Nonetheless, the town still has a big unsolved wireless communications problem involving at least three cell-phone service carriers, whom have paid some $1.3 million since 2010 to house their antenna arrays on the water tank.
Worse yet, until an alternative solution for the wireless equipment leases is identified, Town Engineer Ryan Percival and Department of Public Works (DPW) managers can’t proceed with years-old plans to replace the 63-year-old tank, a pivotal component in Reading’s gravity-fed water delivery system.
According to LeLacheur, he and Percival, who had hoped to break ground on the estimated $3 to $4.5 million tank replacement project next summer, have already explored a number of alternatives to the proposed cell-tower.
However, with major carriers like T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint all unwilling to construct a tower themselves and nixing a series of other options due to security or logistical concerns, Reading will ultimately be on the hook for erecting a temporary structure that will cost the same as a permanent one.
“It was expressed by every carrier who responded that there were no alternative sites that would replace the current water tank location,” the town engineer wrote in a memo to the Select Board and the general public earlier this fall.
“The location of the tower, temporary or permanent, has to be coordinated with the construction of the water tank. The water tank installed needs a large enough area lot lay down materials and assemble portions of the tank prior to hoisting it in any place,” he and his staff added in their written response to a series of questions posed by residents.
According to Percival, the ultimate price-tag to the community will be somewhere between $250,000 to $500,000. If the structure is temporary, Reading will ultimately shoulder that burden over the approximate two-year period it takes to replace the water tank.
However, if keeping the structure, Reading could not only solve security concerns associated with placing the equipment on the new 750,000-to-1-million gallon tank, but also require telecommunications companies to foot the construction bill as part of new multi-year leases.
Based upon a 40 percent allocation of projected future lease revenues, the town officials estimate it would take roughly four-years to recoup the money for a permanent structure.
According to those revenue projections, Reading can also expect to generate anywhere from $95,000 to $110,00 a year in additional lease income to offset other budgetary needs in the community.
An eight-year planning process
Situated on a heavily wooded plot of municipal land in a quite residential neighborhood off of Route 28, the town’s existing 750,000-gallon water tank currently feeds water to a substantial portion of Reading’s citizenry.
As the 110-foot tall tank dates back to 1953, neighborhood residents have little issue with the town’s proposal to replace the infrastructure with a new composite-elevated-tank (CET), a glass lined container that will be encased by steel.
However, according to area neighbors, adding a cell-tower to the site is a completely different story, as they believe the structure will drag down their property values.
“A structure of this size has no place in a densely populated neighborhood. I am extremely concerned about how this will affect the future resale value of my home as well,” area resident Kathy Youngs told town officials in a letter in late October.
The public works project technically dates back to 2016, when LeLacheur was advised the existing 63-year-old water tank required some routine maintenance work like painting.
Aware the cell-phone equipment would need to be relocated under that scenario — and further concerned that the tank’s preventative maintenance needs would become more frequent in the years ahead — the town manager asked for other options.
Town Hall managers responded by drafting plans for a replacement project, which would include the construction of either a temporary or permanent cell-tower to house the wireless antenna arrays.
The subject of a series of discussions before the Select Board, Town Meeting ultimately approved $500,000 in funding to erect the tower in April of 2018.
However, months later, the Select Board during a public hearing trashed those plans, and in Nov. of 2018, a subsequent Town Meeting assembly formally stripped the funding from the capital budget.
Heading back to the drawing board, Percival and water department officials emerged with a new plan to construct the CET tank structure, which would include four bay areas for wireless antenna arrays for four separate carriers.
Town Meeting appropriated $4.5 million for that undertaking in the spring of 2019, when citizens were told that telecommunications companies would be asked to foot the bill for a temporary tower during the two-year construction phase.
However, in June, LeLacheur and the town engineer found themselves back before the Select Board asking the elected officials to consider erecting a permanent cell-tower structure that will stand at least 160-feet in height and potentially as tall as 200-feet.
At the time, the Town Hall managers explained that the three existing leasees, fearful of neighborhood opposition and refusing to take on the cell-tower project themselves, had also insisted there was no other viable location in all of Reading to place the equipment.
The town met with the carriers to map out a plan to move forward. It was at this time they expressed concern over permitting and leasing as issues, based on recent experiences in other unspecified communities,“ reads a recent town narrative of the telecommunication industry’s response. “It was expressed by every carrier who responded that there were no alternative sites that would replace the current water tank location.”
With Reading’s Select Board dramatically different in its composition — four of the five sitting members had not been part of the discussion about the cell-tower back in 2017 and 2018 — the elected officials agreed to consider the tower during a quiet June meeting.
However, once residents caught word that the cell-tower talk had been resuscitated, a public furor erupted. Those protests began growing quite vocal in late August and early September, when the Select Board in advance of a scheduled meeting acknowledged the receipt of no fewer than 48 written letters from furious abutters.
“I find it very appalling that I had to hear this news from my good neighbors and not the town itself…Two years ago, I needed a variance for 11-inches on a deck and had to send out 42 letters to the surrounding houses…The town manager/engineer is trying to install a 200 foot tower and I have received no letter,” Bancroft Avenue resident Brian Anderson vented in one such letter to the Select Board this summer.
“This matter was addressed several years ago by the board, rejecting the siting of a cell tower next to the water tank. Common sense prevailed. The design of the new water tank incorporated placement of the cell antenna on it. This is not new,” separately complained Beacon Street resident Jackie McCarthy in another message to the Select Board.
Auburn Street and Beacon Street residents, whose single-family homes are sandwiched in a dense neighborhood between Reading Memorial High School and Lowell Street, haven’t let up since.
What happens next is up to the Select Board, who have instructed the town manager to return in December with a list of alternative solutions.