Kathi Zerkle glanced up at the sky, waving her arm as if to cradle the expanse of her residential property on Jonas Road.
Edged by the Stony Brook to the east, Gilson Brook to the west and open space to the northwest, Zerkle’s half-acre lot on the dead-end street is a wetlands sanctuary for blue herons and other wildlife.
“This is why we moved here,” she said. “For the peace and tranquility and now a cell tower is coming.”
Zerkle may be jumping to conclusions since the application by T-Mobile Northeast LLC, is pending before the Zoning Board of Appeals, but the possibility that a cellular monopole will tower over the Brookside historic district in the near future is real. Boston-based Varsity Wireless, representing T-Mobile, has filed two applications for a special permit to build a “personal wireless communications facility” in one of two locations in the section known as Nabnasset. The first application, filed in June 2016, is for a 130 foot monopole at 11 Brookside Road on the property of the H.E. Fletcher Social and Athletic Club in what is known as Brookside Village. The other, filed in March, is for a 140 foot monopole at 73 Brookside Road behind the Willow’s Pizza restaurant. The two locations are within walking distance of each other.
The second application was filed after Varsity, a wireless infrastructure developer, met with strong opposition from the first filing.
The Historical Commission frowned upon the idea of placing a cellular site near the historic Brookside Mill. Brookside Village is described in the National Register of Historic Places as a “former mill village of 25 historic resources, including the former Brookside Woolen Mill, multiple unit worker housing, single unit residences, a granite dam, a bridge and five examples of modern construction…”
In a letter dated Sept. 1 to selectmen, David Gutbrod, chairman of the Westford Historical Commission, said members unanimously voted to send the following recommendation: “the construction of the proposed cell tower would have a significant negative impact on the historical character and fabric of the Historic District. As such, the Commission opposes the construction of the cell tower.”
But in a letter to the ZBA members, Robert Cassidy Jr., of 3 Jonas Road, reminded them that his street has its own historical significance.
“I am writing to urge that no zoning variances be granted to Varsity Wireless to erect the huge cellphone tower behind the Willow’s in Nab. My family has lived on Jonas Road since 1946 – my father helped name the road for Jonas Keyes, the Revolutionary War soldier whose grave is on the road…” Local History Librarian Virginia Moore stated her research revealed that Samuel, Charles, and Daniel Keyes were the three family members who served in the Revolutionary War. Jonas ((1792 – 1850) “seems to be buried in the Pelham Center Cem. in Pelham, N.H.,” according to Robert W. Oliphant, author of “The Westford Gazetteer, A History of Westford, Massachusetts In Its Place Names.” However, Oliphant notes that the tombstone supposedly contains “three men and a horse,” including Jonas’s father Issachar Keyes (1747 – 1820) and his younger brother Joash (1792 – 1850).
The concern among homeowners living near the Willow’s restaurant has prompted them to post “No cell tower” signs along Brookside Road and Nabnasset Street. The neighbors packed the April 19 Zoning Board of Appeals meeting to take turns presenting arguments. A protracted meeting that went past 10:30 p.m. focused almost solely on the 73 Brookside location. Board members continued the hearing for 11 Brookside to a future date.
Betsy Mills, a 38-year-resident, countered the claims of real estate professional Andrew G. LeMay of Real Estate Consultants of New England. LeMay said, “residential sales of homes that are more than 1,000 feet from a cellular tower are “not affected as far as price (or) buyer resistance,” and “sales located close to existing cell towers are scarce.”
Alluding to the density in the Nabnasset section, Mills said, “Right now I could count quite a few houses way farther than my house and definitely within 1,000 feet that are on the market, so you have to balance the statistics with the source and put it into perspective for local.” Mills said her house at 67 Brookside Road is about 200 feet from the 73 Brookside proposed site.
Radio communications consultant David Maxson of Medfield-based Isotrope LLC, reminded residents that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 gave cellular carriers great latitude in placing communications facilities in residential neighborhoods.
“So if residents don’t want something in their backyard they can help the board by identifying the least objectionable location for a facility to serve this general area,” Maxson said. “…each individual carrier is entitled to independent protection under the Telecommunications Act.”
Maxson has been retained by the ZBA.
In a presentation, Attorney Brian Grossman, representing Varsity, argued that the facility will meet social, economic and community needs.
“The facility meets subscriber demand in general,” he said. “It helps meet public safety in terms of allowing users to contact first responders in the event of an emergency. It certainly provides for conveniences.”
Later, in response to a question posed by ZBA Chairman Robert Herrmann about concealing the monopole cellular tower inside something like a water tower to make it less objectionable, Grossman flexed his muscles.
“We can talk about height and we can talk about need and how to solve that with this type of proposal, but I don’t think my clients are going to agree to provide additional information or analysis as it relates to a design that it will not agree to build, and if conditioned, would take that as an effective denial,” Grossman said.
The day after the meeting on April 20, George Demetriou of Coolidge Avenue, was out for a walk on Brookside Road.
Staring at the Willow’s restaurant, Demetriou, who said he had attended the ZBA meeting the night before, worried about the impact on the neighborhood.
“I just think too many people would be adversely affected by it, whether it’s safety, environmental or just aesthetics,” said the retired software developer.
Zerkle, a professional DJ, and her husband Ray, a musician, are also troubled by the proposal.
“It’s like they’re trying to ruin this part of town,” said Ray. “It’s like they’re selling our land value.”
Disclosure: The reporter formerly had a social connection to consultant David Maxson.
Update: Information on the history of the Keyes family in relation to Jonas Road was added on April 24. A photo of Ray Zerkle was inserted into the body of the article to include a photo caption.