Barrington's cell tower proposal gone, not forgotten


If there was a celebration, it was brief.

Instead, people who rallied support against AT&T’s plan to build a 141-foot cell phone tower near Sowams School, shared quick e-mails of congratulations when a PR firm representing the telecommunications giant said the proposal had been scrapped.

Maria Elena Wah-Fitta spoke out against the plan. The mother of two young boys lives about a block away from Sowams School and was one of the first people to learn that AT&T had been interested in the site.

She happened to be at the school one morning in the fall — her sons are students at Sowams — when a representative from the cell tower installation company was there taking a tour of the grounds. She was completely surprised that the idea was even being entertained by town officials.

In the months that followed the chance encounter, Ms. Wah-Fitta learned more about the proposal. She and dozens of other residents grew louder with their concerns after the Barrington Town Council “endorsed” the concept of a cell tower behind the local elementary school.

The opposition turned out to a school committee meeting in April and took turns questioning the need for another cell tower in town, the gravel road that would cut across the playing fields at Sowams School, and the possible health implications posed by the radiation-emitting hardware that would be placed atop the tower.

The rallying cry was heard and AT&T withdrew its proposal.

But the victory celebration did not last long for Ms. Wah-Fitta and others.

“We are very pleased with AT&T’s withdrawal of its proposal for a cell phone tower near Sowams School’s grounds. However, this is not enough,” Ms. Wah-Fitta wrote in a recent e-mail.

“We will be asking for both groups of town representatives (school committee and town council) to draft and approve an ordinance that keeps any of these infrastructure projects far away from the schools. Other communities have adopted 1,500 feet from schools and homes as a distance that is deemed to be safer. If we could protect every school in Barrington from having these towers, as well as any other radiation-emitting technology developed in the future near them, that would be a good start.”

But some questions could surround that proposal.

Cell phone transmission towers are currently located at the Barrington Public Safety Complex on Federal Road and atop a light pole at the Veterans’ Park ballfield near West Street.

“I imagine some of those are within 1,500 feet of schools and/or homes,” wrote Barrington Town Council President June Speakman, adding that one of the light towers at Barrington High School’s Victory Field had earlier played host to cell phone signal transmission equipment.

The council president stopped short, however, of rejecting the proposed law change.

Ms. Speakman said the council would “entertain any suggestion that members of the public wish to offer.” She said someone would need to contact her in order to place the issue on an upcoming council meeting agenda.

Ms. Speakman also clarified some of the confusion that surrounded the debate over the cell tower plan. She said that when the item was first placed on a council agenda, no one from the public showed up at the meeting to oppose the concept of a cell tower near Sowams School.

She said the council, working with information provided primarily from the cell tower installation company, voted to endorse the concept — she later said the use of the word “endorse” was not the best approach — and allow it to proceed in a public process.

“As I tried to make clear at the April council meeting, issues placed before the council have to go through a process. It would not have been fair, or wise, to turn AT&T away without consideration of, and public discussion of, their request,” Ms. Speakman wrote. “The council proceeded in the way we always do, and the process worked as it should.”

Timeline of proposal

Following is a brief timeline of the events — from most recent to least — surrounding the proposal to install a cell tower near Sowams School:

• April 14: Letter from Edward Pare of Brown Rudnick, a company representing New Cingular Wireless and AT&T, states “At this time, our client is hereby withdrawing its request and suspending its efforts to construct a wireless telecommunications facility at the Sowams School property while it explores other options for filling its significant gaps in network coverage in this area of Barrington.”

• April 7: Dozens of residents attend town council meeting to discuss proposed cell tower, but are told that the item was added as a “correspondence” on the agenda and the council would not be able to act upon it.

• April 3: Moms and dads from across Barrington — not just those with students at Sowams School — tell the school committee that they do not want a cell tower erected just a few hundred feet from Sowams School.

• March 3: A representative from AT&T approaches the council and asks the board to endorse the concept of a cell tower on the school’s campus. Council member Ann Strong voices some concern about the location of the tower: “I think it’s awfully close” to the field, but some other members of the council appear quite receptive to the idea, voting 5-0 in favor of endorsing the concept.

• Nov. 2013: Town officials confirm reports that representatives from AT&T visited Sowams School, exploring the location as a possible site for a new cell tower.


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.