Secor Site Not Suitable for Tower, Critics Say

As clock ticks on one site, the alternative meets objections

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

The possible installation of a cell phone tower along Secor Street in the woods near the Haldane school campus elicited fierce opposition on Nov. 8, forcing the Nelsonville Village Board to debate its own constituents as well as critics from elsewhere in Philipstown.

Board members convened the forum, held at the Haldane auditorium rather than the Village Hall annex because of the expected turnout, to solicit input on the proposed Secor Street tower.

In October, the board suggested the 4-acre site as an alternative to the site proposed for a 110-foot tower proposed for private land on Rockledge Drive, overlooking the Cold Spring Cemetery. Negotiations ensued between the Village Board and Homeland Towers, which oversees projects for corporations such as Verizon and AT&T.

“We see it as a suitable alternative” to the Rockledge site, Mayor Bill O’Neill told attendees on Nov. 8. “You may disagree.”

Many did.

Roughly hexagonal in shape, the Secor Street tract lies behind the American Legion and Philipstown Volunteer Ambulance Corps buildings on Cedar Street, near two historic graveyards as well as the Haldane Central School District campus. Hiking paths and Back Brook, which ends in the Hudson River near the Cold Spring waterfront, wind through or close to the site.

Nelsonville Village Board members Trustee Alan Potts, Mayor Bill O’Neill and Trustee Tom Robertson await the start of a workshop on a Secor Street cell tower proposal (Photo by L.S. Armstrong)

Under village code, installation of a cell tower typically requires a special-use permit. The Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Board have been studying the Rockledge Drive application and held a joint public hearing, on Nov. 15.

At the Nov. 8 meeting, Mayor Bill O’Neill stressed that FCC regulations require Nelsonville to take action on the Rockledge application within 150 days, which will be Dec. 17, or the village can be sued by the wireless companies. “Our sovereignty can be overridden by the Federal Communications Commission,” he said.

Under FCC rules, a municipality can only deny a cell tower application for a strong, well-documented legal reason, such as a negative impact on the environment (including ecological, aesthetic, historic, social and cumulative effects) or risk to an endangered species. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 also does not permit municipalities to reject applications based on the perceived risk of radiofrequency (RF) emissions.

Dave McCarthy of Nelsonville created a public Facebook group on Nov. 9 to discuss cell-tower siting. By Nov. 16 it had 177 members.

The board suggested the Secor site because a tower on Rockledge “would be obscene,” said Trustee Thomas Robertson. “There is no other property” available. He said the board shared residents’ concerns. “This is our village and we love it. We’re struggling over this.”

Although O’Neill emphasized the “bludgeon” of FCC authority, he pointed out that “federal courts have found — broadly speaking — a significant impact on the aesthetic quality of an area is grounds to not grant a special-use permit” for a cell tower, he said. Because the village owns the property on Secor, it also could refuse to grant a lease to Homeland Towers, he said.

“Just say ‘No!’ ” members of the audience chanted.

Health questions

Although an application cannot be rejected because of the perceived health risk, Trustee Alan Potts addressed the issue, citing scientific reports on radio-frequency emissions. The personal, hand-held cell phone “is what is emitting radio-frequency radiation close to your head,” he said, and a lack of sufficient cell phone towers makes cell phones push harder to find a signal, compounding the radiation discharge.

Thus, O’Neill interposed, “the radiation from your cell phone is 100 times more powerful than radiation from a tower.”

Nonetheless, audience members repeatedly objected to placing a cell tower near Haldane, whose elementary school is about 975 feet from the Secor Street site.

“I’m here speaking for the children,” said Haldane Superintendent Diana Bowers. “We are asking that you consider another location” although “we understand there’s probably a problem with all locations.”

Bowers argued that the widespread use of the towers is too new for their long-term health impacts to be gauged. “No one can say it’s 100 percent safe,” she said, “We just don’t know. If we err, we need to err on the side of children.”

Gareth Guest, a retired physicist who lives on Crown Street near the Secor site, concurred that ramifications of low-level radiation exposure over time are “an open question. I would urge great caution.”

“Just because you cannot prove something is harmful doesn’t mean it’s safe,” added Carolyn Llewellyn, a Nelsonville resident whose children attend Haldane.

Do cellular phone towers cause cancer?

By Chip Rowe

The FCC says the potential health effects of a cell tower cannot be among the reasons that a municipality rejects an application to build one. Although the rule is based on a law passed in 1996, the American Cancer Society (cancer.org), in a brief dated 20 years later, said there remains no scientific evidence that towers increase the risk of cancer.

“First, the energy level of radio- frequency (RF) waves is relatively low, especially when compared with the types of radiation that are known to increase cancer risk, such as gamma rays, x-rays, and ultraviolet (UV) light,” it states on its website. “The energy of RF waves given off by cell phone towers is not enough to break chemical bonds in DNA molecules, which is how these stronger forms of radiation may lead to cancer.

“A second issue has to do with wavelength. RF waves have long wavelengths, which can only be concentrated to about an inch or two in size. This makes it unlikely that the energy from RF waves could be concentrated enough to affect individual cells in the body.

“Third, even if RF waves were somehow able to affect cells in the body at higher doses, the level of RF waves present at ground level is very low — well below the recommended limits. Levels of energy from RF waves near cell phone towers are not significantly different from the background levels of RF radiation in urban areas from other sources, such as radio and television broadcast stations.”

There may be reason for concern about RF radiation emitted by a phone held next to the user’s head. Last year the results of a $25 million study conducted over two-and-a half years by the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health found that male rats exposed to two types of RF radiation that mimicked what a human might receive from a phone had a greater chance of developing a brain cancer known as a glioma.

While there is no known mechanism by which RF radiation would cause cancer, these results suggest RF radiation may be carcinogenic but only in far higher doses than delivered by a tower. Because cell phones and towers are relatively new, the long-term effects, if any, of low-level exposure are difficult to measure.

Environmental concerns

Nelsonville resident Mary Rice noted that “almost in the center” of the Secor site “is a very large wetland area” or wetland buffer. “I don’t think you can fit the requirements for a tower on that site,” she said. “I wonder if we should be spending a lot of time on such environmentally constrained land.”

Robertson observed that the Secor site, which is near his house, is village-owned. “It’s not a park. And it is ours … our lot.” He agreed that “there’s a path through there” and “there’s water on the property,” though “it does not take up a lot of the premises.”

O’Neill termed the environmental questions “valid” and promised a thorough evaluation of the property.

Carl Byrne, who lives on East Mountain Road, challenged Robertson’s interpretation of village ownership. “This is not your land,” he said, arguing that it belongs to taxpayers. “You represent the community.”

Michelle Smith, executive director of the Hudson Highlands Land trust, cautioned that even if not zoned as parkland, if a property such as the Secor site has been commonly used as a park, New York State imposes a series of requirements, such as state legislative and gubernatorial approval, before a municipality can “alienate” it and repurpose it.

Residents at the Nelsonville Village Board meeting held Nov. 8 at the Haldane school. (Photo by L.S. Armstrong)

Furthermore, she said, maps show the parcel as part of the Nelsonville forest preserve, crossed by a major trail, she said. “This is a tricky issue,” she cautioned.

“Your opinion is welcome, though highly debatable,” O’Neill replied.

Other opponents argued that towers decrease property values. O’Neill recommended they hire an assessor to obtain evidence, a task he said is “not within our purview.” Courts generally have rejected this argument as a basis to turn down an application, ruling there is no way to sufficiently document if a particular home sold for less because of a nearby tower.

Audience members also observed that Japan, South Korea and countries across Europe with mountainous terrains similar to the Highlands provide wireless service with small towers and distributive antenna systems, though they may cost more.

O’Neill described that approach as “a non-starter” in Nelsonville because, he said, it works best on flat land.

Going it alone?

Inviting attendees to “join the fight,” O’Neill chided some audience members for not getting involved “when the cell tower wars started” and warned that “if you’re absent without leave, you have to accept the consequences of what happens.”

He also lamented that “we’re fighting this battle alone; we’re fighting on your behalf,” and twice criticized U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney for allegedly failing to intercede with the FCC. Maloney lives on Douglas Lane, across the road from O’Neill’s Moffat Road residence, both of which are near the Rockledge site. O’Neill said he had written and emailed Maloney but received no response.

Maloney, a Democrat, told The Current on Nov. 14 that “I’ve spoken with the mayor and we’re looking into this issue.” Likewise, he said, he has “been in touch with hundreds of my neighbors about this” matter and “am always here to help people in the Hudson Valley navigate complicated federal processes.” However, he added, “in this case, the FCC can’t actually move this deadline — I would like that to happen, but it’s up to the towns and the tower company” to work something out.

A Maloney spokesperson elaborated, stating that, in accordance with federal procedures, the village and Homeland Towers could agree to extend the timeline to allow Nelsonville more time to reach a decision, or failing that, could seek judicial resolution of their differences. He also said their office had recently received a letter from O’Neill about the tower, but had no record of other mayoral messages in the last several months.

The spokesperson said that Maloney and his staff have been looking at possible revisions to the federal telecommunications law. But he pointed out that any legislation seen as imposing new regulations on mobile communications companies is unlikely to succeed when Republicans control both the U.S. House and Senate, as well as the presidency.

Finally, the spokesman explained that Maloney must tread carefully to avoid perceptions of a conflict of interest, given the proximity of his home to Rockledge Drive; thus, he said, their office is consulting the House Ethics Committee to make sure everything is handled properly.

After listening to the back and forth at the Nov. 8 meeting, Kenny Levine expressed dismay at the frequent invoking of “no.”

“ ‘No’ to what?” he asked. “‘No’ to this site? ‘No’ to that site?” Wherever a tower is constructed, “someone is going to be affected more than others.” He urged everyone to get together. “We’re in the same boat,” he said. “Try to come to a consensus. Whichever way this falls out, don’t hate anybody. Just love each other.”

Meeting video by Gregory Gunder, courtesy Village of Nelsonville

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