Berliners Debate Cell Phone Towers
by Kieron Kramer
More than 60 people showed up in the Berlin Fire House on Community Avenue on a cold, snowy night, Thursday, February 19, to have their say on the latest hot topic in Berlin – cell phone service and the building of the towers to provide it.
The hearing was to deal only with the application by Verizon to build a 145 foot tower with a four foot lightning rod on property owned by Henry J. Seagroatt on Satterlee Hollow Road, not on the tower proposed for Cherry Plain.
Not only was this a large turnout for the Berlin community, but it was especially impressive considering that it was snowing and the roads were treacherous. In fact, the meeting started late because the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) had to wait for the attorney they had hired to protect the Town’s interests in this procedure and for the stenographer to arrive. For those of you old enough to remember Joan Crawford as the stenographer in the movie “Grand Hotel,” forget about it. The stenographer, dressed in black and
wearing stiletto heels, arrived and immediately began looking for an electrical outlet and an extension cord so she could plug in her recording typewriter, the kind you’ve seen in court movies or TV crime shows and which seems to have only 14 keys but with which she can magically type everything said in the meeting for the record. Peter Henner, the ZBA’s lawyer from Clarksville, NY, hired for his experience in zoning and telecommunications law, arrived five minutes later. The Verizon contingent of one lawyer, two technical experts and two real estate experts had arrived early. There was plenty of decaf coffee available on a side table.
Local Law # 3 of 2002, the Wireless Communication Facility Siting Law of Berlin, developed by Joseph Rabatoy when was Supervisor and adopted in August of that year, governs in this case. Among other things, it stipulates that the applicant, in this case Verizon, must pay for the expense of the Town’s legal and engineering consultants and stenographer and supply a bond to cover these expenses. It recommends that the tower’s height be 150 feet and that it must have room for two or more other carriers on it. It stipulates that Town owned land should be the first choice for location if practicable. This law followed two years of cell phone tower moratoria, the maximum time allowed is three years, which prohibited any towers being constructed until the Town could establish law on the matter.
Don French, Sr., Chairman of the ZBA, called the meeting to order at 7:38 pm. He announced that the purpose of the hearing was to inquire into the concerns of citizens on the Satterlee Hollow cell tower only. ZBA Member Vic Lewin announced that a sign up sheet was available for those who wished to speak and that each speaker would be given three minutes and a second bite at the apple at the end of the first statements. He also announced the need for an alternate ZBA member and noted that since Al Maus is on vacation in Florida there are only four members available to vote on a special use permit. Interested parties can contact either Don French Sr. or Town Supervisor Robert Jaeger. French added that “The pay is great.”
The ZBA’s attorney, Henner, began the presentation by summarizing succinctly the steps that must be taken for Verizon to get a special use permit. A visual assessment form, an Environmental Assessment Form (EAF) and a location analysis must be submitted by Verizon. He said the EAF is a draft by the applicant of what environmental considerations in the project the ZBA should assess. A public hearing is required to get citizens’ input. The ZBA will then initiate the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) process to determine if there is a significant chance that the project has an environmental impact. If so, a full environmental impact study will have to be done. If the SEQRA indicates a negative impact (meaning no impact or an insignificant chance of impact) then the review is over. The ZBA will decide at a public meeting whether to make a positive or negative SEQRA declaration. Henner said that the Town is required by NYS Law to take a “relaxed zoning” attitude when considering the establishment of a public utility like a cell tower or a power plant. He assured the audience that even so, “We will look at the application closely, and the engineer hired by the Town [Mark Hutchins of Brattleboro, VT,] will assess all the factors.” Henner said Hutchins is an experienced radio engineer who has represented Halfmoon and Canaan in our area in such matters.
Attorney Mike Cusack, who practices out of Albany and who works almost exclusively for Verizon, presented the visual impact result of the Satterlee Hollow tower balloon test and the signal propagation studies of various locations that are possible sites. The Satterlee Hollow Road site gave the best result in the Verizon study. Unfortunately, these graphic representations on poster boards were not discernible more than three feet away. He said that Berlin raised particularly difficult service coverage issues because of its location between two ridgelines which are between 1,900 and 2,000 feet high and because the rural nature of the countryside provides dense foliage that impedes signals. He said that the cell phones use low power duplex two-way radio line of sight technology. The cell phone antenna must be above the tree line. A series of antennas are needed because the Berlin valley winds around and because the cell phone radio waves are not high powered like other radio transmissions and cannot travel over long distances. The tower on Satterlee Hollow Road would continue the network from the Petersburgh tower further down the Route 22 corridor.
Cusack also described the proposed facility on Satterlee Hollow Road. The 145 foot monopole tubular steel tower with no guy wires or anchors attached will have a 12 microwave antenna array approximately 12 feet in diameter and a gps antenna. A pre-fabricated 12’x30’ unmanned shelter will be erected on the heavily wooded acre lot. A logging road will be improved to a 14’ wide driveway. Utilities will be buried three feet underground. The lot’s elevation is 878 feet AMSL (above mean sea level). Since the facility will be visited only for maintenance one to three times per month as needed there will be no impact on water, sewer or on pedestrian or vehicular traffic, he asserted. He said that once the ZBA approves the special use permit Verizon will not need to get approval from any other Town board.
Don French Sr. announced that the ZBA had received 107 signatures on letters and petitions and only two were against the building of the cell tower. Six people at Thursday’s hearing either objected to the cell tower project or had serious questions about the process.
There is a controversial theory that low power microwaves are a health hazard. Don French, Jr. and Julie Harrell, both of whom live on Cherry Plain Hill Road near the site of another cell tower proposed by Verizon, have expressed this theory – French at January’s Town Board meeting and Harrell in a letter to the Eastwick Press. However, they were unable to raise this as an issue at this hearing because ZBA attorney Henner said during his opening presentation that the Federal Telecommunications Act prohibits municipalities from considering the environmental impact of radio frequency emissions. The ZBA can consider views, locations, soils, but the Town will be held liable in Federal court if the ZBA considers the impact of radio frequency.
The Berlin law requires that Town property be given priority as choices for tower location. The idea is that the Town should benefit financially from the cell towers, in this case by receiving rent from the cell phone providers. There are seven pieces of Town property that were considered. The 90 acre woodlot at the end of Comstock Hollow Road is too far away from Route 22 and the village. The Town Garage, the Transfer Station, the pump house, the Cherry Plain Polling Place and the small parcel on Sand Bank Road don’t have the elevation needed to provide a large, reliable service area. The reservoir has the elevation, but the ground is wet, and the tower facility would have to be located on the acreage behind the reservoir. There are right of way issues related to accessing that acreage. Most importantly, since 9/11, security at public water sources has been a concern, and the Town Board has withdrawn the reservoir as a site for this project.
Verizon lawyer Cusack pointed out that the Town will not only benefit from having cell phone service, but Verizon pays the taxes on any improvements to the parcels that it uses and offers rent free space on its towers for Fire Departments and other Town or County emergency services.
There was some concern expressed that the ZBA was not protecting the Town’s interests. “I hope the ZBA is not being boondoggled,” Julie Harrell said. Bobby Gabrenya of Cherry Plain thought that the ZBA’s lack of a pre-application meeting, as required by the Berlin law, indicates that they have cut corners, that the Town could have influenced Verizon’s location choice and that this has benefitted Verizon. Henner replied that the pre-application is to protect the applicant so it will not waste time on a futile application. He said it makes no difference to the Town because now that the process has started the ZBA and the Town engineer will determine if the Satterlee Hollow location is best for everyone concerned or whether another location should be used. Kent Goodermote asked if there wasn’t an existing structure, like the Seagroatts tower, that could be used. Or, he suggested, maybe the tower should be disguised – some can look kind of like trees.
Both Chairman French and Lewin said this presentation was from Verizon’s perspective, and they assured the doubters that the Town would begin its own study and reach its own conclusions. ZBA Member Mary Ellen Gilroy emphasized that the ZBA should look at every possible site including structures.
Dave Theriault said that he thought all the towers should be considered as one project. In this way the most reliable service for the most residents with the fewest towers could be planned. Henner had said earlier that even though a permit for each individual site must be issued, the Town may be able to consider the environmental impact of both towers together.
Lynette Shanahan, who lives on Plank Road near the reservoir, said she was worried about her property value going down. The tower will be “literally at the Welcome to Berlin sign,” she said. This is one of those myths that was debunked during this meeting when Tara Fisher, General Manager of Hoosick River Hardwoods, formerly Cowee’s Forest Products, said that businesses want cell phone service and that cell phone service could increase the tax base by bringing business development into town. Gilroy said, “I have listened to the Highway Department be wrangled over $200 in Town meetings, now we have the opportunity to bring money to town to operate better.” And for Berliners wanting to sell their house, who can say that a family wanting to move to Berlin from New York City or Albany wouldn’t expect and want cell phone service?
Most people in attendance seemed to support the tower and the cell phone service it will bring. Emily Gutermuth, a young lady who lives by the reservoir, said that cell phone service was important so that people could get help in a personal medical emergency and so people could feel safe in their jobs. She works for the Department of Social Services and experience has taught her that her colleagues being able to call their office from a client’s house makes them feel safe and better able to do their job. The most powerful argument for cell phone service is for vehicle or health emergencies. Simply, if your car gets a flat, wouldn’t it be convenient to be able to call for assistance? This, too, is somewhat of a myth however, because the proposed tower is not going to provide reliable cell service to every single person or area in Berlin. The coverage will be less spotty than it is now but not perfect.
In a rare example of anti-NIMBYism, Jen Burhans, who lives on Satterlee Hollow Road said that she will see the proposed tower out of her window but that she is willing to trade off her view for cell phone service because it is important to the town to have it. And, as Emily Gutermuth said to a round of applause at the beginning of the public comment, “It is going to end up in somebody’s back yard.”
At one point near the end of the public comment, Don French Jr. said. “I unequivocally do not support any towers in Berlin… If you want modern conveniences, by all means move.” French has more than once said that he lives in Cherry Plain without using the technologies of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that the rest of us have gotten used to. His philosophy and opinion is a personal one to which he is entitled, but one wonders how many in the Fire House that night thought, “No, you move.”
A public hearing on the Cherry Plain tower has not yet been scheduled. It is likely that there will be more opposition at that hearing than there was at last Thursday’s hearing. The next scheduled meeting of the ZBA is March 19 at 7:30 pm in the Town Hall. It is unlikely but possible that they may be able to make a SEQRA declaration on the Satterlee Hollow Road tower at that time.