Two years after they first appeared before the town and following a town rejection, two subsequent lawsuits and finally a settlement agreement last year, contractors from a telecommunications firm …
Two years after they first appeared before the town and following a town rejection, two subsequent lawsuits and finally a settlement agreement last year, contractors from a telecommunications firm have begun laying the groundwork for a 150-foot cellular telephone tower near the intersection of Drift and Masquesatch roads.
Construction of the tower, which when complete will rise 150 feet over lower Westport, has not yet begun. But contractors began clearing and building a large concrete footing earlier this month.
Ralph Souza, in Westport's building department, said that while he's following the project closely, he hasn't seen all of the information he needs on the project, including engineering details on the footing's precise "as built" placement. Built just south of Drift Road, the footing sits just yards off the east side of Route 88 and its placement, Souza said, is one of the reasons why he wants to see "as builts" of the project. As for some residents' recent claims that the footing is in a wetlands area, he said, that's not as much a concern from his end.
"Conservation signed off on it" before it got to his desk, he said.
The road toward a cell tower in Westport has been going on since January 2021, when Municipal Communications II LLC approached the town with a request to build the tower in an effort to improve cell phone coverage in lower Westport.
The applicants, who will not populate the tower with equipment but rather will build and lease out space on it to telecommunications companies like ATT, sought a host of variances and other permissions. Following a strong negative reaction from residents concerned about the tower's impact on the area, members of the zoning board of appeals rejected the proposal in August 2021.
Municipal Communications quickly filed suits against the town in state and federal courts. The cases went on for about a year until August 2022, when the town and the firm reached a settlement agreement that granted the firm a special permit with needed variances and site plan approvals, and stipulated that the firm abide by 27 conditions suggested by the zoning board before it denied the application a year earlier.
The judge's ruling, which was agreed to by the town, "fully resolves all of Municipal's pending claims against the town," the judge wrote.
Following the settlement, select board members said that while they would have liked to prevail in court, they believe they did the best they could in the face of a legal challenge that could have proved extremely costly, with little guarantee of success.
"I don't want people to think this is a complete loss," board member Brian Valcourt said. "We actually got the conditions that were suggested by the zoning board to begin with, in order to approve" the firm's application.
Town officials said they knew early on that defending their case could prove problematic, as federal law often favors communications carriers over municipalities. They were also told that legal fees could easily run to stratospheric levels — in the face of the cellular telephone industry's significant resources, Westport's financial position would be no match, they feared.
"From the very beginning ... we were kind of advised that this is very difficult to defend," town administrator James Hartnett said. "The likelihood of success was not very good, and costly."
Even though the case is resolved, one audience member told the select board last year, continued vigilance is crucial.
"Who is going to be making sure that they abide by these 27 concessions?" one said. "I hope it doesn't slip through the cracks now that the hoopla is over. I hope somebody is paying attention. Hold their feet to the fire."