Thea Fournier may have won another round in her decade-long battle to protect herself and her neighbors from the radio frequency radiation emitted by cellular telephone antennas Tuesday night at Town Meeting.
But she isn’t taking any satisfaction in the defeat of a by-law modification proposed by the Board of Selectmen.
“Even though we prevailed again this year it was clear from the discussion the public needs more clarity from us on why we think the town’s intentions are mis-guided,” said Fournier, president of the activist group, North Andover Rights of Citizens. “We need to do a better job of explaining why we think the health threats from RF radiation are serious enough to err on the side of caution.”
On the advice of Town Attorney Thomas Urbelis, the Board of Selectmen sought for the second year in a row to modify the town’s wireless antenna bylaw by replacing the requirement that towers cannot be located within 600 feet of schools or dwellings with a network of so-called “overlay districts” where towers would be permitted.
Urbelis said that the current bylaw would continue to draw legal challenges from well-funded wireless providers because it doesn’t meet the requirements of the federal Telecommunications Law of 1996. Under federal law the town cannot outright ban cell tower construction nor limit them because of fears negative health consequences, he said.
Selectman Bill Gordon went further arguing the proposed bylaw modification would have provided the town more control over where cell towers were built because the designated areas were in industrial and commercial zones away from schools and homes.
“This bylaw gives the Planning Board the tools to locate towers where we would be happy to have them,” Gordon said. “Every overlay area has plenty of locations with 600 feet distances away from buildings.”
But when the vote was called after an hour’s debate, the selectmen failed to garner the two-thirds majority it needed to modify a zoning regulation. The vote was 234 in favor and 132 opposed.
Jennifer Scarpa spoke for many in the audience when she opened the debate by saying she was “frustrated and somewhat insulted” that she had to rise for a second year in a row to defend the 600-foot set back requirement.
“I am not against putting up cell phone towers,” Scarpa said, noting she owns a cell phone. “I just think we should be more strategic in where they are placed. The goal shouldn’t be to slap up as many towers as we can but rather to let them serve the purpose they were intended for, which is providing coverage.”
Loretta Wentworth said she feared wireless communication systems represented “the biggest biological experiment” of all times. “I am pleading for people to pay attention to the uncertainty.”
And Chris Bowe added, “Town officials don’t know the meaning of no. In light of the recent report from the World Health Organization, this bylaw is grossly irresponsible.”
A recent report by the WHO declaring that increased cell phone usage could possibly increase brain cancer risk. The report said nothing about cell phone towers, however.
Fournier said she intends to communicate with her mailing list of 200 supporters sooner rather than later in hopes of keeping the pressure on Town officials to retain the currently by law.
“Science is on our side,” Fournier said. “We once thought smoking was safe too, but my own father died of throat cancer when smoking was still permitted in hospitals.”