MAHOPAC, N.Y. - The cell towers are coming.
That was the warning from town officials last week when dozens of residents from the Wellington Drive neighborhood in Carmel descended upon Town Hall after they noticed a Homeland Towers official and a Carmel town engineer scrutinizing a town-owned parcel of land near their homes.
While the Wellington Drive residents probably don’t have to worry—the parcel in question is owned by the town and designated for recreational use and Supervisor Ken Schmitt pledged not to lease it out for cell-tower construction—other neighborhoods in the community are already on Homeland Towers’ radar and there are two site-plan applications before the Planning Board.
While town leaders say they know cell towers are necessary and inevitable, they want them kept out of residential neighborhoods where they can be an aesthetic blight, allegedly reduce home values and supposedly pose potential health risks.
A recently revised town code directs telecommunication companies to build towers in preferred industrial and commercial neighborhoods. But the 1996 Telecommunication Act gives such companies the authority to place them wherever they want if that location is deemed vital and necessary.
“The last time we had a group of people here about cell towers, I said very plainly and openly: They are coming,” Councilman Mike Barile told the crowd at the board’s March 13 meeting.
He was referring to the two cell-tower plans currently on the Planning Board docket that seek to build on residential properties on Dixon Road and Croton Falls Road in Mahopac.
“The two sites they have right now [in Mahopac] are churning my stomach as we speak because I have a personal involvement,” Barile said. “My daughter is right next to one. She bought her dream home on Croton Falls Road. Then I found out her neighbor, whom I’ve known personally as one of my best friends for over 40 years, was putting up a cell tower. So, somebody will sell out their neighbor for a dollar. That’s the sad truth of it.”
Schmitt said that Homeland Towers officials approached him about potential town-owned sites, and he gave them a book with 23 locations. However, he said that while Homeland officials were welcome to look at the sites, the town would not lease or sell any of the properties if they were centered in residential neighborhoods. Still, he cautioned, if Homeland officials want to get into a certain neighborhood and the town refuses to lease its land, Homeland could entice a homeowner to do it, much as it did on Dixon Road and Croton Falls Road.
“If they don’t like ours, they might pick someone else’s property. And they’re going to put it there and the odds of us beating them [in court] are fairly remote,” he said. “These towers are coming, we are just trying to put them in the right areas and have them affect the least number of people.”
Barile noted that when the town tried to persuade Homeland to move from the private residence on Dixon Road to a town property in the area that was more remote, that homeowner filed a lawsuit against the town for interfering.
“We are in a no-win situation,” he said. “Someone is going to sell us out to put a cell tower in their backyard.”
Schmitt said one of the reasons the town gave Homeland the book of properties was to sleuth out the areas in town that the company was interested in.
“They went through this book and identified sites that could potentially be the future sites of a cell tower,” the supervisor said. “There is a bunch of properties that they looked at and Wellington Drive happened to be one of them. Personally, I think that’s a terrible site for a cell tower. I would never agree to put one there. It’s too close to homes. These things do not belong in residential neighborhoods.
“We also gave them the book because if we could find [a property] that was far enough away from residential neighborhoods that they would consider, it could bring revenue to the town [by leasing it out],” he added.
Councilman Jonathan Schneider said he is well familiar with Homeland’s tactics from having dealt with them before.
“I worked with Homeland Towers when I was treasurer for a fire district in Westchester,” he said. “They are very aggressive in acquiring what they need in order to meet what their carriers want. We are trying to mitigate any collateral damage that would affect the residents and generate revenue instead of having a private citizen generate the revenue.”
Town attorney Greg Folchetti said that if the town does find a piece of property it owns that may be a palatable location, residents would still have the opportunity to vote on it.
“Any lease agreement that the town enters into with the telecommunications company is subject to a permissive referendum,” he said. “If [theTown Board] agreed to enter into a pact, the public would have the right to seek a referendum on it. A certain percentage of people [via petition] would have to seek the referendum and that would then have to be filed with the clerk. It could be a special election, or a proposition during a standard election.”
But if it’s a private piece of property that Homeland chooses, the town’s options are limited.
“We’re here tonight because it affects us, but I don’t want to see it go into anyone else’s neighborhood,” said Wellington Drive resident Eileen Podlovits. “We have a duty as a community [to stand up]. I like where you (the Town Board) are coming from on this and am so happy to hear it. Keep at it and keep fighting the fight.”
Schmitt said the board has “an obligation to protect the public.”
“We’ll do everything we can within our power to do that,” he said. “The federal government has granted a lot of power to these companies to put these up. It’s almost a mandate that these things are coming and are going to have to be built. We can prevent them from being built on town property by just not agreeing to sell or lease them the property. The issue is that private homeowners are willing to negotiate with them and are willing to put these towers on their properties, such as the one on Croton Falls Road and Dixon Road. The best thing you can do to protect your neighborhood is make sure none of your neighbors enter into an agreement.”
Schneider added that communication between all parties—residents, town officials and Homeland officials—should remain open and cordial.
“I think it’s very important that we keep the line of communication open not just with the citizens but with the telecommunication company because I wouldn’t want to have an adversary coming in to build, I’d rather have an ally,” he said.
Wellington Drive resident Gregory Kassimis wanted to know how Homeland can build a tower while he needs to get “all kinds of permits for a swimming pool or a deck.”
“They still have to go through a planning board process,” Schneider explained. “But if the planning board stalls [after site plan application is submitted] Homeland can invoke the FCC’s 90-day rule—’if you don’t give me my permit I can start building after 90 days and you can’t do anything to stop it.’”However, Councilman John Lupinacci said that while difficult, a municipality can sometimes defeat a telecommunication company in federal court.
“If we make a strong and compelling argument that the tower might not be needed because there is an adjacent tower somewhere else or the height of the tower [is too high], a federal judge is going to listen,” he said. “It’s not just the 90-day clock starts and then they’re guaranteed everything they want.”
Schmitt said he’s grown frustrated with the town’s inability to use health concerns as an argument against a cell tower’s location.
“It’s mind boggling to me and unconscionable that the federal government has allowed these towers to be installed and municipalities cannot consider health concerns [on behalf of] the residents even though we know there are definite health concerns,” he said. “A planning board cannot consider that as one of the reasons to deny the application.”
Schmitt urged residents to reach out to federal representatives and ask them to revise the law so health concerns can be used as an argument.
“What you all have to do is contact your federal representatives: Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Sean Patrick Maloney,” he said. “They are on the federal level. If anyone can change the law, they can It’s incumbent upon all of us to write to our federal legislators and demand that they [amend the law].”
Lupinacci said that if a homeowner in his neighborhood signed a lease agreement for a cell tower, he’d take that person to court.
“If a neighbor of mine wanted to do that, I’m suing that neighbor for damaging my property value,” he said. “It’s a civil matter and if you are selling us out for $4,000 a month, then I want some of that [money] because you just lowered my property value.”
Bob Buckley, who has been leading the charge against the cell tower plan for Croton Falls Road—he maintains a Facebook page dedicated to the cause and his group has hired an attorney—said the town should provide Homeland with a list of properties, but not include those in residential areas.
“Give them any list you have of properties for potential cell towers but pull from the list those that are in the middle of residential communities,” he suggested. “We have 23, but maybe 11 of them are never going to happen because we don’t support cell towers in residential communities.”
Buckley contended that Homeland acts like a bully and ignores home-rule laws and guidelines.
“I don’t consider Homeland Towers our friend,” he said. “They are ignoring our town laws; they have no respect for our town laws. They are looking to invade our town. They will go to your neighbor and ask them to sell you out.”
Buckley said a source told him Homeland wants to build anywhere from six to nine more towers in the community.
“But they need to follow the hierarchy [in the town code],” he said. “You are supposed to start with industrial, and then commercial [zones] and then go down the list. Residential is way down the list. Why would they go straight to residential? Because it’s cheaper. It’s all about the bottom line.”