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Unimagined Legacies
Crawford Faces Tough Cell Tower Choices

REGIONAL – The Town of Crawford's Telecommunications Advisory Board will meet at 7 p.m. this Thursday, March 15, before the start of the regular Town Board meeting in the Government Center on Route 302. This board consists of the Town Board, plus Linda Zwart, Chair of the Crawford Planning Board, who is a non-voting advisor.

They are looking at a pending application from AT&T Cingular Wireless for a new 150 foot high cell tower along Route 17K — a project that has drawn considerable opposition of late, as well as the hired attention of one of the nation's top litigators in the telecom world.

The advisory board is scheduled to make a suggestion regarding the location of the new tower to the planning board, although the planning board must still make its own final decision on the application.

The roots of this and similar cases in the region go back sixteen years to the year when President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and set in motion vast changes to the media landscape of the USA. The stated objective of the act was to open up America's telecom markets to competition, via a massive piece of legislation several thousand pages thick, the first overhaul of American telecoms law since 1934.

In some ways it was very innovative, including such things as the Internet among broadcasting spectra. But many of its objectives were never achieved. Corporate interests worked to blunt or nullify the act; with the result being that cable monopolies remain and costs soared. Local radio stations vanished into mega-companies such as Clear Channel, and a market with many phone companies became a market with just a handful of giants concentrated on cell phones. Costs soared again and phone bills became ever more difficult to decipher...

At the time the act was passed, its Section 704 went virtually unnoticed. And yet, it is Section 704 that may well be the part of the act with the longest effective life. This section, added at the request of the phone companies, was designed to prevent American NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) from crippling the planned roll out of cell phone service across the land by making it impossible for communities to ban cell towers. Municipalities could control the placement and look of the towers, but they could not, in the end, say no to them.

Here in the spring of 2012, there are approximately 257,000 cell towers in the U.S. Tens of thousands more are in the application process, with carriers appearing before planning boards across the nation.

Even with all these towers, American cell phone usage — especially data usage — has produced strain in all the big carriers' networks. Or so the telecoms say. Part of their problem has been their desire to bring in new services which offer smart phone internet connectivity and ever-increasing bandwidth. Ultimately, the big phone carriers have made it clear, they want to break the cable companies' monopoly on high bandwidth internet connectivity.

Here in the Mid-Hudson region, the build-out of towers has produced a number of contentious cell tower applications.

In Gardiner, a tower proposal was defeated three years ago. A judge ruled that the town had ignored its own zoning laws and approved a tower that was too high. In the Town of Shawangunk, Verizon's application for a tower on the Hoagerburgh, at Twin Ponds Lane, was in process for about three years before finally winning approval.

Kris Pedersen, Chair of the Shawangunk Planning Board, says, "It is one of the most challenging issues that can come up to a planning board because it is an issue that people who live nearby the site feel very strongly about. It's very much a visual problem."

Currently, the Town of Crawford is mulling a proposed tower at the "Claybar" site on Route 17k, near Collabar Road. Local residents have made strenuous objections to the proposed tower and have retained an attorney, Andrew Campanelli, who is widely recognized as a leading expert on the law (and litigation) concerning cell towers.

"Out of everything that has come before our board, this has been the most challenging issue," said Zwart. "As a board, our legal advice leads us to believe that the issues are fairly cut and dried."

At the same time, however, Zwart acknowledges that "it can be a bit overwhelming, coping with all the expertise and information that accumulated around these issues."

Meanwhile, on the Hoagerburgh, the Verizon tower has been erected. It is a brown monopole, with no visible antennas. Seen from the road in passing it looks like a rather tall utility pole.

"It's just a rusty brown pipe," noted Curt Schoeberl, Town Assessor for Shawangunk. "For most of the houses in that area, when the leaves are on it won't be visible."

But Donna Richardson, who led opposition to the tower during the planning process, has a different opinion.

"I feel just the same way about it as I did then," she said. "It should not have gone up on private property, it should have gone on town property so the town would get the financial benefit, or it should have gone on the Rod & Gun Club property. When you look out my back windows and you see it, every day, it is an eyesore and I believe it devalues my property.

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