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Verizon Wireless sues Amherst over height of cellular tower

How high should a cellular tower be?

That’s the question for a judge, who will settle more than a year of debate and haggling over erecting a cell tower in a residential neighborhood in northern Amherst.

Verizon Wireless has filed a lawsuit that would force the Town of Amherst to allow a 114-foot cell tower on the property of Phoenix United Church of Christ at 1280 North French Road, near Campbell Boulevard.

Verizon – which says it needs the tower to provide better, faster coverage in that area – sought a variance with the Amherst Zoning Board of Appeals in February, because the tower would be over the maximum 65 feet allowed by the town.

Instead, the Zoning Board approved a tower height of only 75 feet, even though Verizon contends that it needs to go higher to transmit a signal through the least amount of clutter.

The two sides are scheduled to appear in court next Wednesday for motions before State Supreme Court Justice James H. Dillon.

Residents on North Forest have complained that the proposed tower would be out of character for the neighborhood, and town officials acknowledged that its proximity to homes would be closer than what has been normal for Amherst.

Verizon, meanwhile, looked at nearly a dozen alternative sites, but only the church property provided the necessary coverage, according to court documents.

The only recourse for the Town Board was to set a required distance between the cell tower and neighboring parcels so the tower wouldn’t land on someone else’s property should it topple.

But court papers noted that Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein sent a letter to the members of the Zoning Board that said, “sixty-five feet is appropriate for this site and this neighborhood.”

And when the Zoning Board later granted a variance at its Feb. 24 meeting, it was for a tower that would be only two-thirds the height of what Verizon needed.

Verizon’s attorneys called that decision “arbitrary and capricious” and an abuse of the Zoning Board’s discretion.

“There was and is no legitimate basis for this height reduction,” court documents state. “The ZBA offered no evidence, expert or otherwise, to support denial of that request or an arbitrary tower height of 75 feet.”