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Judge to decide on cell tower in Peabody

BOSTON — Verizon Wireless asked a Land Court judge to clear the way for construction of a cell tower in Peabody.

A team of lawyers for the telecommunications giant sought Judge Jennifer Roberts’ approval Tuesday to end the long court battle and permit a tower to be built.

At issue is the City Council’s unanimous opposition to a proposed tower on Lynn Street and the rejection of an alternate site on Coolidge Avenue.

Under the federal Telecommunications Act of 1966, municipalities have little authority to prohibit towers and must approve them if a provider can demonstrate a gap in coverage.

Verizon and the city have agreed there’s a service gap in South Peabody. But that’s where the consensus ends.

“It’s been a heavyweight fight of punch and counterpunch that has gone on for half a decade,” said City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski.

The city argued the Federal Communications Commission law allows communities to reject a specific location if there is an alternative.

The fight began in 2014, when Verizon sought permission to construct a 60-foot tower behind Michael’s Limousine on Lynn Street. The City Council rejected that proposal, saying a tower does not belong in the middle of a residential neighborhood, that it would lower property values, and be an eyesore. Verizon then filed the first of two lawsuits.

In an effort to reach a compromise, the city and Verizon agreed on a new site at the rear of the Coolidge Avenue Water Treatment Plant.

While that location for a 120-foot tower on public land was approved by the council in 2014, the municipal election the following year changed the membership of the panel. The new board rejected that spot as well. Verizon then filed its second lawsuit.

In the wake of the stalemate, the city asked the Peabody Municipal Light Plant (PMLP) if they could provide a solution. The utility proposed to contract with American Tower Corp. to install a distributed antenna system, a series of one- to two-foot antennas mounted on light poles that would be outfitted with fifth-generation cellular networks.

The so-called 5G technology, the newest genesis of broadband connection, promises faster network speeds, dramatically reduces the time it takes one device to send data to another, and connect devices, such as wearables, smart home appliances, and cars.

While that solution was acceptable to Verizon, the price tag of $750,000 put on it by PMLP killed the deal. Verizon insists federal law limits the cost to lease poles to a $450 application fee and $275 annually in rent.

Still, there’s a chance a deal could be worked out, according to Charles Orphanos, PMLP’s manager.

“We are still negotiating with Verizon and have a meeting set for Friday,” he said. “Given the FCC’s one-size-fits-all price policy, we’re trying to work out an agreement on everything else and then negotiate cost. My sense is Verizon will do whatever happens first; our agreement, or a judge’s ruling in their favor for the Lynn Street site.”

City Councilor-at-Large Anne Manning-Martin said if the city loses the court fight, she fears the cell tower will go on Lynn Street, the worst location of all.

“The problem came when the city offered a solution by siting the tower on Coolidge Avenue and then reneged on it,” she said.

Michael Murphy, a Verizon spokesman, said in a statement the company is continuing to work with interested parties, including the city, to identify a solution to address the service needs of residents.

“Our ultimate goal is to bring enhanced wireless service to residents who depend on fast and reliable service today, as well as to stay ahead of their future needs,” he wrote.

The judge took the arguments under advisement. A verdict is expected this spring.

 

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