September 06, 2006

Residents Give Clear Signal on Proposed Tower

You'd do just as well painting "Cingular" on a rock and holding it to your ear, he kvetched. During a recent appearance at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor comedian Lewis Black ranted about cellular service in the Hamptons. He may be the most humorous complainer, but he is not the first.

Still, residents have traditionally expressed an unwillingness to put up with what wireless phone companies say they need to put up to provide the best cellular service.

Last week some 60 Springs residents were no different. They descended on the Fort Pond Boulevard firehouse speaking out against the notion of constructing a 125- foot tower on fire department land. There was a measure of shouting, and it wasn't into a mobile phone.

"I think they were surprised [by the turnout]," reported Paula deSeze, a neighbor whose home on Talmage Farm Lane butts up against firehouse property. "They set out about 15 chairs," she said, and as more and more locals filed in, "They looked like they were getting grimmer and grimmer." She submitted a petition boasting signatures from about 240 residents, gathered over the course of two weeks prior to the meeting.

By Monday, deSeze seemed disheartened to learn the fire district's board of commissioners didn't immediately jettison the idea in the face of opposition. "This was definitely an unpopular idea," deSeze said, "We really figured they'd drop it."

According to Bruce Bates, a commissioner, board members will most likely make a decision when they meet in October. They decided to leave a period of time for interested parties to submit written comments following the informational hearing on August 28. If the board decides to go forward with the plan, a public vote will be scheduled, he assured. "Ultimately, it's not going to be our decision," he said.

Bates explained that last winter the board of commissioners was contacted by representatives seeking a spot for a 125-foot pole. Built to resemble a flagpole of sorts, the pole could host antennas for up to five cellular service providers. The fire district could take in around $6000 per month in rent. That money would be placed in a special account and used to defray the costs of future equipment, such as new fire trucks. Bates recalled that the most recent truck purchased by the district cost over a quarter of a million dollars. The fire district borrowed to make the purchase, with voter approval. A hefty reserve fund would help keep costs, and consequently fire district taxes, down.

Many residents expressed willingness to pay extra costs or to even help raise extra money rather than see the enormous tower looming above their homes.

Beyond the pole itself, each company co-located on the pole would need equipment on the ground. According to Kathy Radziewicz, East Hampton Town's wireless expert, reps at the meeting neglected to mention the myriad equipment boxes and sheds that could result. Such "huge, ugly and scary" improvements would be "right up against my house," deSeze said. She planned to attend yesterday's town board work session to ask lawmakers to join in opposition to the plan.

Bates reported that after the commissioners heard a presentation about the proposal, they sent letters to firehouse neighbors, letting them know about the idea. According to deSeze, however, the notion was kept under wraps. She said when she talked to Radziewicz and Councilwoman Pat Mansir about it, neither one of them had heard of the idea. "Everybody I spoke to, who ought to know about it, didn't know about it," she said.

More than a few learned enough to show up for the scheduled informational meeting last week, however. While some audience members were unsatisfied by the paucity of detail presented by Suffolk Towers representative Larry Ré. (Suffolk Towers would construct the pole and manage the tenants leasing space.), others were unhappy to know the pole would be used solely as a revenue source, not to enhance emergency communications.

That experts said the tower would improve cell phone service for a mere mile around the tower did little to bolster support. It's not worth the impact to quality of life in Springs, opponents say. Beyond the potential aesthetic devaluation, opponents also spoke about dangers posed by radiation the tower's equipment might emit as well as a fall zone that includes nine nearby homes. It simply does not belong in a densely populated residential neighborhood, speakers summarized.

According to Radziewicz, most other similar towers are built approximately 500 feet away from homes. Nine houses would be located within 200 feet of the proposed pole. In fact, the town code prohibits towers in any area less than two and a half times the height of the pole away from homes.

That's not the only town code provision the proposal would violate, according to Talmage Farm Lane resident Jonathan Coven. He created a handout listing seven ways the plan would violate town zoning code. Because the fire district is a separate taxing entity and therefore considered a municipality unto itself, like a school, it need not comply with all zoning regulations. According to Coven's research "that immunity is overstated. It's not an unconditional carte blanch." Radziewicz affirmed Coven's take. She said that if the proposal is for revenue and not solely to enhance emergency communications, it is, indeed, subject to East Hampton's zoning rules.

At the meeting and throughout ensuing days, pole opponents emphasized support and appreciation for the fire department. In fact, one Talmage Farm Lane resident vowed to use her expertise as a fund-raiser to help, if money is needed.

The district has always gotten the support it has needed from the community, neighbor Suzanne Janis told The Independent. When the district sought to expand the firehouse, support was forthcoming because the need was recognized, she explained. Her husband Rich said his family has lived near the firehouse for years, his kids attending and "loving" Sunday morning pancake breakfasts. Certainly sirens and occasional events mean noise for the neighborhood, but Janis said, "It's a community thing. We've always applauded the effort these people put in." Opposed to the tower plan, however, he added, "You hope these guys saw what people said."

Meanwhile, Coven railed this week against the proposed pole. He reminded that a similar proposal was turned down at Springs School and at nearby Ashawagh Hall. He likened the tower to "garbage floating around New York trying to find a place to land."

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