One by one, the planning board members’ names were read out and their responses entered into the record. John McEnrue. “Yes.” Joe Havranek. “No.” Randi Morf. “Yes.” Fred Greitzer. “Yes.” Chairman Billy Liggins. “No.” Nick Mercurio. “No.” (Jeanne Walsh abstained from voting, reasoning that her family lives next to a water tower where the tower could potentially be relocated.)
The votes amounted to the inability to shut down the application. After further discussion, another motion was made to approve the application, and shortly thereafter, Cellco’s application was approved in a 4-2-1 (Walsh abstained), accompanied by an emotionally charged letter penned by Morf which she read aloud, explaining her vote in favor of the application. “It is my opinion that this board has been put between a rock and a hard place,” Morf said. “If the town board had acted in April 2010, perhaps a site more acceptable to all could have been found. We now hear from Councilwoman [Manna Jo] Greene that the board would like to discuss this issue now, but having attended recent board meetings I have seen no evidence of this, and the previous vote has made it impossible. If the applicant had come to us prior to the formal application for a pre-application meeting together we might have been able to avoid the controversy. Unfortunately neither option has happened, and we need to decide. This applicant has done everything this board has required and has adhered to town code ... So it is with extreme reluctance I vote ‘yes.’”
“We had requested more information, but the developer and Verizon ignored it,” said Greene, the town board’s liaison to the planning board, who was present at the meeting. Greene said that the town did ask the developer to consider the town-owned water district as a location, and pointed the finger at Cellco, insisting that there was in fact a “majority of interest” in the town board in calling a moratorium, “but the developer and Verizon has not respected healthy processes in this town.” Greene added that the town’s attorney advised that there were no grounds for a moratorium.
Walsh hastily pointed out that the original letter from Cellco arrived on the town board’s desk in April 2010, yet the town board did not respond with anything to Verizon until August 2010, at which point too many sands had run. “In the future for projects of this nature, [the Rosendale Town Board] will ask to be an entity early as an interested agency,” concluded Greene.
Realistically, local governments can’t do much to stop cell phone towers being constructed in their communities — Section 704 of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that while municipalities can regulate their placement and appearance, they can’t be banned outright. Local boards, populated by volunteers, often find themselves at a disadvantage when faced by huge communications companies and their high-powered expert lawyers.
“It’s like having two divorced parents, and the kids suffer,” said vexed Woodland Drive resident Amy Van Pelt, whose property abuts the 20-acre wooded site where the monopole tower with electric shed is slated to be built on a 100-by-100 parcel of Marge Bridges’ property.
For the planning board, outstanding issues now boil down to visual impact and mitigation; the Zoning Board of Appeals will next decide on minor necessary setback variances. For five families whose homes border the bucolic Woodland Drive, the decision boils down to a different sort of mitigation — filing an Article 78 lawsuit against their own town’s planning board. Such suits are filed when plaintiffs believe a government entity has acted improperly or misapplied the law.
“We have spent thousands of dollars already, and it will be thousands more,” said a sore Van Pelt. “It’s unfortunate because our tax dollars are paying the planning board consultant, and the planning board attorney, and our town supervisor. We saw a draft land lease agreement to build a 100-foot tower to build next to the water tower on Brown Street. We have reviewed minutes and we don’t see anything where [Rosendale and Cellco] have tried alternate sites, and them not working.”
Van Pelt opined that both town and planning board are responsible for the series of fumbles.
“I don’t know what happened with the town board, but clearly the system failed because the communication with Verizon broke down. Whether it was the town board, or Verizon, I don’t know. And then all the sudden this application is in front of the town board. When this application came in front of the planning board, the planning board should have said to Verizon, ‘Wait — this is a Type 5 facility (a brand new facility as listed in the town building code), [so therefore] build this on an existing structure.’” Van Pelt was puzzled that the town wouldn’t want to lease its own water district property, bringing a little additional revenue and easing the tax burden.
“We got a letter saying that there would be a public hearing in August. They had their public comments for about 20 minutes, and then closed it. It was suddenly closed. They graciously kept the public comments open for written comments … we hope they opened and read them,” said Van Pelt.
One such letter was from Van Pelt herself dated Dec. 21, 2010, where she accuses the engineering firm Tectonics, Cellco and the town of conducting inconsistent and incomplete balloon testing on two separate occasions to use as concluding studies. Residents tried to re-create their own balloon testing, but had difficulties due to snagging tree limbs. “But keep in mind that over 10,000 square feet of trees will be cut down if this proposed tower is approved. This means that all the trees immediately surrounding and potentially ‘hiding’ a balloon will no longer be there to ‘hide’ the proposed tower. The visibility of this new proposed tower is being greatly underestimated,” she wrote.
Van Pelt argues that the region has adequate cell service, and that this project is not about supplying service to a cellular dead zone, but rather “to add to the Verizon grid … If you ask anyone, we get fine service here in Rosendale.”
When the votes were cast at the Jan. 6 meeting, palpable disgust welled up among the attending Woodland Drive residents. Diane Matthews bitterly invited the planning board members to her house for a cookout once the tower is built, “to share in the lovely view of our tower.” Audible curses, insults and vexations were hurled at the planning board as the deeply frustrated residents walked out, slamming the door behind them, one by one.
It’s the planning board’s job
Town Councilman Ken Hassett said the Verizon tower plan has actually been in the works for more than two years. “We had suggested a few locations. We had also suggested they use the water tower by water tank by St. Peter’s Cemetery, but Verizon had determined it was not feasible either. So they went out looking for additional sources, and found this homeowner on Woodland Drive,” he said.
“As far as the town dropping the ball, I don’t agree with [that statement],” said Hassett. “That’s why we have a planning board; the town board is not here to micromanage every project that comes in. The planning board is staffed with very knowledgeable people who know our existing codes when it comes down to look at a project. That’s the body that needed to review this project, and if Verizon were within their codes, then that’s their right … The town would have loved to see that go on town property because the rents could have helped the town, but it didn’t come to fruition.”
Hassett insisted that not everyone opposes the concept of a cell tower and improved coverage. “Over the years, we have heard people from the town pleading to us to get a cell tower. We have been put on notice that, God forbid, something happens, that they couldn’t use their cell phones that we would responsible.”
As far as who said what, and who’s to blame, Hassett didn’t want the hassle. “It went through the process, and it’s been approved, and I don’t want to revisit who did what.”
Marge Bridges, on whose 106 Davis Ave. property the tower is to be erected, quietly attended the planning board meeting, and though she said she has yet to have any personal confrontation with angry residents, she unsuccessfully tried to assuage the mounting emotions of her affected neighbors. “I felt bad … I did say something to one of the people sitting next to me, by way of trying to explain that there is quite a bit of woods there, and hopefully that would provide a natural screening affect.” Bridges said that her contract with the cell phone giant is a renewable, five-year lease.
“I believe that 2007 is the year that Verizon had approached me,” explained Bridges in a post-meeting conversation. “I was between jobs at the time and I was like, ‘Oh, a little bit of income — won’t that be nice?’ I thought it was a blessing at the time.”
Bridges said that she is aware of the ire surrounding the cell tower, and feels “distressed” over it. “I do feel like it’s a technology that a lot of people are using, and you cannot have cell service without cell towers. And I felt like this would be the least intrusive on people.” Bridges was in favor of how she viewed the planning board’s conduct with challenging issues. “The planning board does an excellent job. The way they try to balance the needs of the community and the concerns of the residents.” She would not comment on the financial agreement between her and Verizon.
Verizon Wireless upstate New York spokesperson John O’Malley said that this tower would be for use of wireless voice and broadband Internet communication; 4G at some point. He added that though he couldn’t recall specifics about Rosendale’s tower, that he did recall that several locations were considered and rejected on the basis that they didn’t align with other towers.
“This was the site that worked the best. That’s something that’s key to talk about when looking to build a cell tower,” explained O’Malley. “The cell tower is a line-of-sight technology, so when we are trying to add coverage either as a new coverage tower or add capacity, we are looking at a location. The process is a very specific and precise process, because our sites need to be able to see each other. We looked at other spots; this was the best location for us.”
As for the water tanks and towers in the water district: “When we go into a location, we go into it looking to see if there is an existing structure that we can use such as a water tower. It’s faster to get equipment, and we use less equipment. But, if there isn’t anything that will work within the existing network configuration … that’s what we have here.”
Attorney for Woodland Drive residents Rod Futerfas of Wapner, Koplovitz and Futerfas in Kingston, refused to comment. Van Pelt and others are bracing for the next stage of their time-consuming and costly battle against the corporate giant. “Gardiner fought this, and won,” stated Van Pelt.