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ZBA approves new Woodchuck Hill Road cell tower

Harvard’s Zoning Board of Appeals has approved Verizon’s request to allow construction of a new cell tower at 12 Woodchuck Hill Road, concluding a controversial months-long negotiation. The board voted unanimously to grant a special permit at its Dec. 30 meeting after having worked out an agreement with Verizon attorney Chris Swiniarski during its Dec. 16 meeting. At that meeting, Swiniarski had successfully argued that the new tower, a 125-foot monopole, should be considered a modification of an existing nonconforming use instead of a new use.

The modification of a nonconforming existing use, referred to as a “Section 6,” requires a special permit instead of a variance. The nonconforming use that already exists is a 130-foot lattice radio tower, which has been on the property for decades. The ZBA found that the new tower “would not be more detrimental to the community” than the existing one, which is the legal standard for the ZBA to issue the special permit. Swiniarski explained that he had not pursued this line of argument in previous hearings because Verizon had previously been seeking ZBA approval for a 160-foot tower, which would be substantially taller than the existing one, and therefore would be considered more detrimental to the community.

Addressing concerns that Verizon might be slow to remove the existing tower, Swiniarski assured the board that the old tower would definitely be removed within six months of the new one’s completion, and probably within as few as 30 days.

At the Dec. 30 meeting, Harvard Town Counsel Mark Lanza and Swiniarski both agreed that the wording of the special permit would prevent the tower from being extended in the future beyond its current height to make room for the equipment of other cell service providers. The wording describes the 125-foot height limit as a camouflaging feature, and as such Verizon cannot unilaterally alter it or force the town to agree to a change.

Some ZBA members expressed concerns about the fact that the house of the Maiore family, the owners of the 12 Woodchuck Hill property, is within 500 feet of the proposed tower site, which violates a provision of Harvard’s cell tower bylaw. Lanza assured the board that the town bears no liability for injury or property damage caused by approving the nonconforming use in this situation.

Having received ZBA approval, the next step for Verizon will be to go to the Planning Board for a site plan review, which the board will begin at its Jan. 11 meeting. During the site plan review, the Planning Board will address the details of the site, such as abutters’ concerns about visual screening.

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