Philipstown Tower Meets Strong Opposition

Homeland Towers reduces structure height by 40 feet

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

When the Philipstown Zoning Board of Appeals opened a public hearing on the proposed Vineyard Road cell tower on Nov. 13, two intense hours followed, featuring news of a reduction in tower height (from 180 to 140 feet), testy exchanges between the board and tower attorney, and strong objections to the tower from residents packing the meeting room at the Philipstown Recreation Center in Garrison.

Nor did the debate end there.

Citing unfinished work and unresolved questions the ZBA and its partner in the review, the Philipstown Conservation Board, kept the proceedings open and scheduled the next session for 7:30 p.m., Monday, Dec. 11, at the Recreation Center.

Philipstown’s zoning law requires a special-use permit for cell tower installation. Major jurisdiction over the application rests with the ZBA, but the tower, proposed by Homeland Towers LLC in conjunction with Verizon Wireless, also needs a wetlands permit from the Conservation Board.

The tower would go on a 64-acre tract along Vineyard Road, a dead-end lane that exits into Route 9 near the Routes 9-301 intersection at Mekeel’s Corner. Mekeel’s contains a 20-year-old cell tower regarded by Homeland Towers as unsuitable for upgrading.

The Vineyard Road site also is about one-third mile from Philipstown’s old landfill, which Homeland Towers considered for a cell tower in 2014 but now deems technically unfeasible.

Tower heights and dollar signs

ZBA Chairman Robert Dee criticized a Homeland Towers report, covering four counties, that found cell towers do not diminish property values. Dee noted that Philipstown has nine towers but that the Homeland Towers survey only looked at one, a converted radio tower on Sky Lane, and did not examine homes nearest the tower.

“It would’ve been nice if you could have had a couple from the area we’re talking about,” he said. “It is not only misleading, it is insulting to this board’s intelligence” to omit such details.

“That’s unfair and maybe misleading in and of itself,” Gaudioso responded. But he promised to query the consultant who prepared the report.

ZBA member Vincent Cestone recalled that after the existing Mekeel’s Corner tower went up, real estate surveys found the values of nearby homes declined.

“So even though you stick by your report,” he said, “I find it a bunch of bullshit myself.”

Charging that Cestone had “obviously prejudged” the application and “the language he’s used is unfair to the applicant,” Gaudioso immediately demanded that he recuse himself from board deliberations.

Cestone declined, and the hearing proceeded.

If the Vineyard Road tower gets installed, the Mekeel’s Corner tower would be decommissioned but Dee said that “instead of abandoning that, we’re looking to improve it.” He said the town government approved it in 1997 with the understanding it could be upgraded.

Gaudioso explained that an upgraded Mekeel’s Corner tower would have to be 210 feet high and require lighting.

But Hank Menkes, Philipstown’s new telecommunications engineer, said that a tower 200 feet high or taller offers little improvement in service over a 190-foot tower. He also suggested it might be possible to adjust the antennas on the Mekeel’s Corner tower to provide better coverage.

Dee instructed Menkes to prepare “a complete, independent report” on the potential for an upgraded Mekeel’s Corner tower and for putting a tower at the old landfill.

Defining a gap

As at prior meetings, tower opponents discounted the argument that significant gaps exist and compel construction of a new tower.

Neighbors of the Vineyard Road site, organized as the Rockwald Road Association, told the board they had conducted extensive road tests and encountered no significant gaps.

However, Gaudioso emphasized that under zoning law, Homeland Towers does not have to prove there is a gap, or that the tower is the “least intrusive means” of addressing one. He likewise noted that under federal law, there’s no standard for what constitutes a “gap” and that municipalities may not “prohibit, or have the effect of prohibiting, personal wireless services.”

Focusing on the term personal wireless services, the Rockwald Road Association cited a federal appeals court decision that referred to systems enabling “mobile, handheld telephones to reach a cell site that provides access to a land-line exchange and allows phone calls to be made.”

“In other words,” the Rockwald Association said, “ ‘personal wireless services’ relates to phone calls – voice transmission – not high-speed data transmission for streaming videos, surfing the web, and downloading music” or engaging in business/office activities from the road.

Conversely, a report for Homeland Towers by PierCon, another firm, claims a “gap” occurs not only if a phone call breaks up but when someone “cannot reliably … establish a data session.” It adds that “today’s systems, like Verizon Wireless’, provide enhanced communications beyond the initial expectations for voice communication along roadways.”

Homeland Towers said in June that the Vineyard Road tower could enhance emergency services communications, including Putnam County’s.

But Paul Eldridge, who lives near the proposed site (and is Putnam County’s personnel director), pointed to a letter from Thomas Lannon, director of the county Office of Information Technology and Geographic Information Services.

Lannon wrote that county officials “have spoken to Homeland Towers on numerous occasions and made it clear that based on studies provided by Motorola the tower offers no advantages to Putnam County and at this time we have no desire to use the tower in any capacity.”

Again, as at previous meetings, attendees questioned the safety of cell towers, although health concerns cannot be a reason for rejecting an application.

Ellen Weininger of Grassroots Environmental Education said her organization “strongly recommends exercising extreme caution” about putting cell towers near residences or schools.

Ellyn Burstein of the Putnam Highlands Audubon Society asked for immediate monitoring to establish an ecological baseline; a report on alternatives to cell towers; and input from outside engineers.

Lane Gate Road resident Steve Sterling accused Homeland Towers of “trolling” the countryside to find perceived gaps where it could “do the least amount possible” to quickly erect a tower.

“They’re not interested in cooperating to get a good answer,” he asserted. “They only want to get to one answer.” He suggested the town invite a different company to provide cellular service.

Like others, Sterling urged Philipstown residents to unite in opposition. “This is a community situation” and no one should act oblivious because the tower is going in someone else’s backyard, he said. “You have to look at it from a community standpoint.”

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