ZBA Yanks Permit For State Antenna Tower

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Municipal Planning and Zoning

Construction of this state GPS antenna tower at the Chatham DPW facility on Crowell Road involved partially filling in a drainage swale. The permit for the tower was revoked by the zoning board of appeals last week after neighbor's appealed its issuance on the grounds that filling in the swale may cause flooding on their property. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – The town and state will have to make changes to GPS antenna tower at the department of public works yard on Crowell Road.

Last Thursday, the zoning board of appeals ruled that the town had erred in issuing a building permit for construction of the antenna in a drainage swale, which was partially filled to accommodate the structure and its base. Elizabeth and Robert Crowell, who own property immediate downhill from the swale, appealed the issuance of the building permit for the structure, saying they feared the alteration of the swale – originally built to keep stormwater runoff from the DPW from overflowing onto their property – would cause their backyard to flood.

The 4-1 decision by the zoning board basically revoked the building permit.

“We're sending [the town] back to the beginning to start again,” said ZBA Chairman David Nixon.

Elizabeth Crowell said the couple was “delighted” with the decision. The couple had a productive meeting with town staff Tuesday and “feel good about the plan” moving forward.

When the DPW facility was built in 2007, the amount of pavement was increased significantly and runoff flooded the Crowell's backyard, even after a berm was installed to divert the stormwater, said Crowell. The solution to the problem was the swale, built between the higher elevation DPW land and their property. The swale channeled runoff between the DPW land and another property and out onto Crowell Road. Since then, the Crowells haven't had any problems with flooding from the facility.

In September, the swale was partially filled to accommodate a Continuously Operating Reference Station (CORS) tower built by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation's highway division. It's part of a state-wide system of GPS towers used by surveyors and engineers, and filled a coverage gap on the Outer Cape. The town agreed to allow construction of the antenna – which extends 21 feet above the ground – on the DPW property; the state covered the $150,000 cost.

Initially the town failed to obtain a building permit for the antenna. When the Crowells inquired about it, the town ordered the work stopped, but a few hours later a building permit was issued. Haybales were placed around the base of the swale to prevent stormwater from running onto the Crowell property.

At last week's hearing, Elizabeth Crowell said the structure and fill clearly altered the land and interfered with the drainage function. She asked that the antenna be moved and that the swale be restored and certified by an engineer “to ensure that the stormwater system can handle a 100-year event, which is what it was meant to do.” While town officials assured her they would monitor the situation, experience has shown her that without the swale, stormwater will run onto her land during a heavy downpour.

“I can't afford to have my property flooded again,” she said, adding that the officials who oversaw construction of the swale are no longer working for the town, and the people in charge now didn't seem to know the background.

In a letter to the zoning board, Acting Building Commissioner Jeff Chandler said the structure met the requirements for a building permit and did not constitute a change of use that required further review.

Zoning board members faulted the town for failing to investigate the implications of partially filling the swale.

“It never should have been issued,” Nixon said of the permit.

“I think the whole thing was totally mishandled,” said Robert Hessler. “I think it's wrong for the town to send a message that they're in charge and they can do what they damn well please.”

Someone clearly saw that it could be a problem, added Joe Craig, since haybales were used to try to contain runoff. But he added that “haybales are not going to do the job.”

David Veach, the only board member to vote against the appeal, suggested the hearing be continued so that the parties could work to solve the problem. There was also no engineering report or other testimony that proved the the tower would exacerbate the drainage situation, he added.

The majority of the board, however, did not agree. The town and state need to “accept your responsibility and do what you're supposed to do,” said Hessler. “In the meantime, I just hope we don't have a major storm where they have flooding, because then you're looking probably at some real big lawsuits or problems.”

Crowell said that at Tuesday's meeting, Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the swale could be recreated and that it would be properly engineered. The town will present the plans to MassDOT, inform the agency on the history of flooding at the site and request that the process start again from the beginning and include a site plan and the necessary permits. Mature plantings will also be requested to hide the view of the antenna from the couple's home.