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Tensions On Display
Cell Tower Plans Heat Local Tempers With Warnings About How They Fall... And Burn

PINE BUSH – The tension that simmers between communities and cell tower companies broke to the surface at the Town of Crawford Planning Board meeting on February 8.

Appearing on behalf of the neighbors of the "Claybar" site on Route 17K, where a 150 foot monopole cell tower is proposed by AT&T Cingular Wireless, was Andrew Campanelli a nationally renowned lawyer for cell tower cases.

"You cannot approve this application going by your own town code," Campanelli said, bluntly. "This is the weakest application I have seen in a long time."

Campanelli then zeroed in on two areas of concern, in Crawford and other cases he's handled over the years.

"The setback provision in your code requires 150 feet in all directions. But the lease arrangement between Mr. Congelosi, the owner of the property, and AT&T is only for a fifty by fifty feet parcel," he noted.

The second major area raised by Campanelli concerned AT&T and whether the company had demonstrated a real need for increased coverage. Campanelli argued that because the applicant had mentioned multiple gaps in coverage — a gap in Searsville, in addition to the gap on 17K — the language of the application was inaccurate.

Campenelli said the law required that the "coverage objective" be obtained by the least intrusive means possible. He pointed to the fact that an alternative site proposed for the Davis Farm had only one house within 1,000 feet of where a tower might be sited, whereas the Claybar site had 84 houses within 1,000 feet.

He also pointed out that the application cannot reference future technology and carriers' needs at some future time.

In an interview after his appearance before the Planning Board, Campanelli made further points.

"Carriers like AT&T are very nonchalant about overstating the barriers to denial. Intimidation by the carriers is a huge factor, and they use it quite frequently when facing down local planning boards," the veteran lawyer said. "I have heard direct or veiled threats of litigation in approximately half of the applications I have appeared in."

Campenelli went on to note how local boards, and their attorneys, aren't always up to speed on what's required by the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act.

"The carriers and their lawyers know perfectly well that the people who give so generously of their time to serve on planning boards have not spent the time required to study the Telecoms Act in the way that, for example, I have," he continued. "So the carrier feels that it can dictate to the town boards what they can and cannot do."

Indeed, when Neil Alexander of Cuddy & Fedder, representing AT&T Cingular Wireless, addressed the board on February 8, he referred frequently to the length of time that the application has been before the board, instead of the application's specifics. In an exchange with Mr. Campanelli, Alexander also suggested that matters might be settled in litigation.

Alexander expressed frustration with what he perceived to be the slowness of the planning board's deliberations on the Claybar application. He said that angry neighbors "are looking for a Panglossian solution," making an obscure reference to the great French Enlightenment writer Voltaire and his classic satire, Candide. (Panglossian means "unreasonably optimistic"). He further noted that the applicant had examined every alternative site and performed due diligence in the effort to get approval, and that the Claybar site was the only one that provided what AT&T Cingular required.

Campanelli later explained that carriers employ a number of such deceits.

"For instance, there's the claim that you are not allowed to consider adverse health impacts. That is only half true," he said. "To the extent that equipment is FCC compliant, you can't address health impacts. But, very often equipment is installed that is not FCC compliant, and may even expose the public to excessive radio frequency radiation."

And then there are other safety issues.

"Compare a telephone pole and a cell tower," Campanelli went on. "Even when phone poles are broken right off, usually by a car impact, they are held up by the wires connecting them to their neighbors. Cell towers are stand alone, and they do go down a lot more than one might expect."

They also catch fire now and then and burn quite spectacularly, he pointed out.

"There are hundreds of thousands of these towers," the lawyer said. "They are made up of lots of components, and the manufacturers want them to be economically sensible, so they aren't anywhere near as safe as they could be. They're not Sherman tanks, in other words; they're Smart Cars. You always weigh economy and safety in these matters."

In the final analysis, Campanelli added, "They are required to build the least intrusive structure possible, and that is not what they are suggesting."

The Crawford planning board closed its public hearing, but will continue to take written comments on the cell tower application. Further information is being sought, in particular from the Federal Aviation Authority concerning its views of both the Claybar site and the Davis site.

In other business, a public hearing on Richard Memmelaar's application for a site plan and special use permit for his welding business in the RA zone on Burlingham Road was closed. The board declared a Negative Declaration under the SEQRA rules and approved the application.

Also, a public hearing on Paul Conte's application for a special use permit for the storage of excavating equipment at 59 Dickerson Avenue brought questions from neighbors concerned about how much equipment would be stored on the site. There were also questions about back up alarms on trucks and tarps used to cover materials. Conte said he was disabling the back up alarms to cut down on noise and the tarps were covering material he was using on his own property and would soon be gone. Ben Gailey, town attorney, said a list of all equipment on the site was needed. The public hearing was closed, but the application will continue at the next meeting of the planning board.

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