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Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — The big sky-blue water tank behind their houses doesn’t bother Orion Road/Celestial Way residents.

It was already there when many of them bought their homes.

When buffering trees lose their leaves, the tower blends innocuously with the sky. Children play in the woods outside the chain link fence surrounding the tank supports. It’s a quiet spot.

It is there — a few feet outside the tower fence and within 500 feet of private properties — that Verizon Wireless intends to build a 140-foot wireless communication facility (WCF or cellular phone tower) and its ancillary generator and twin air conditioners.

The tower would be three times the height of the water tank with a commanding view of surrounding towns from the top of Mt. Lebanon Street (Lakin’s Hill). But it would also fill — umbrella-like with its electronic arrays — the neighborhood skyline, ruining aesthetics, residents say.

The coalition Residents Against Cell Tower (ReACT) has been formed to oppose the tower. “Save Our Neighborhood” signs dot nearby front lawns, and a petition drive has collected more than 200 signatures and is growing. More than 30 names were gathered by Celestial Way resident Martha Donahue in just one hour last weekend, for example.

ReACT held a press conference in the Community Center last week, at which a number of objections to the WCF application were raised.

Verizon must secure a discretionary permit from the Planning board in order to proceed with its application. If received, the firm must also acquire setback variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Orion Road’s Alan Wilayto moderated the conference, which began with an electronic phone conversation via a Blackberry’s speaker with Selectman Joseph Sergi, who had been contacted to be “made aware” of resident’s concerns, Wilayto said.

Making it clear he was not representing the Board of Selectmen, Sergi explained the genesis of the sections of the zoning bylaw which were developed to protect residents of Route 119 when the WCF near the intersection of Shirley Street was built.

Sergi recommended the group bring their objections to the “board that has jurisdiction, the Planning Board, and make them aware of the challenges. They’ll do a good job,” he said.

The Planning Board is continuing a Verizon hearing begun in October at its Nov. 26 meeting.

“I urge the 98 percent of registered voters who didn’t show up at town meeting to come to the Nov. 26 planning meeting,” Wilayto said.

Pepperell has three cellular towers — off Nashua Road near the Hollis, N.H., town line, in Lomar Park, and off Route 119 near the Shirley Street intersection.

Orion Road resident Michael Gambuzza has viewed the Nextel tower off Route 119, discovering, he said, that it supports only one array of transmitting equipment and it has four empty electrical boxes to which Verizon’s equipment could be connected.

Gambuzza had been a lone voice against leasing the land to Verizon Wireless when May 2003 Annual Town Meeting approved the matter by about 135 votes to one. He feels the Nextel tower would be a good alternative for Verizon.

“There are optimal and slightly less than optimal sites,” Gambuzza said. “If you’re the siting engineer it’s a no-brainer to have your site at the highest point, but there are slightly less-optimal sites too. It’s a compromise.”

Christopher Hannon and William Nickerson purchased their Orion Road homes after 2003. Like most, they appreciate the quiet neighborhood with its underground electric service.

Nickerson feels the town should have informed the newcomers that a lease to Verizon was under discussion. Hannon feels the Realtor should have disclosed that fact as well.

Neither they nor several neighbors are pleased with an alleged terse response from town administrator Robert Hanson who said the town meeting warrant and vote were well publicized. Residents confirmed abutters had been notified of the Planning Board hearing as required.

Hanson said that after the 2003 Town Meeting, Verizon had wanted to locate its WCF in the town forest’s legislatively-protected conservation land. Failing that, the firm asked to locate atop the Townsend Street water tank, which the town rejected. Nothing further had occurred for four years until Verizon made the application now under discussion.

Orion road resident Rebecca Szum is concerned that property values would decrease and radiation from the cell tower might affect small children in the neighborhood, despite FCC information to the contrary.

Hannon is further concerned approval of the site could set precedent.

ReACT objections cite town bylaw sections 8350 and 8360 that call for a WCF to be set back from property lines at least a distance equal to the proposed height and a minimum of 500 feet from existing dwellings and public ways.

Other considerations listed in the bylaw include impact on neighborhood character and aesthetics and impact on the natural environment, including visual.

ReACT cites a zoning bylaw requirement that a WCF applicant must demonstrate it is not feasible to locate its antennae or facilities on existing wireless communication facilities.

According to information available online, Verizon and other companies have been open to disguising cell towers — perhaps as many as 20 percent of the 200,000-plus built across the country — when pressured. Consumer cost prevents doing so for all of them.

Many towers have been located on church steeples or mill smokestacks, or disguised as man-made trees. One on Staten Island is enclosed in a structure that appears to be a lighthouse that has even attracted tourists.

Richard Enright, director of network performance for Verizon Wireless New England, has been quoted as saying even though the current site was chosen for its location, the firm is willing to analyze other sites that might be suitable.

Projected revenue to Pepperell from the lease is about $500,000 over 20 years, Hanson noted.