SOUTH SALEM, N.Y. – Washington is whittling down the ability of communities to control the burgeoning cellphone towers rising in their midst, a telecommunications consultant told the Lewisboro Town Board two weeks ago.

Susan Rabold, project manager for CityScape Consultants Inc., spoke via Zoom, updating board members on the progress being made on a telecom master plan for several northern Westchester towns.

Discussing the reach of Federal Communications Commission officials and others over the past decade, she said, “They have continued to deregulate and chip away at local government’s authority to regulate the [telecom] industry. In a lot of ways.”

Her remarks came in response to an observation by Supervisor Peter Parsons, who suggested that Washington was “increasing the pressure for total coverage.” Rabold agreed, saying, “That started around 2010, and every year it seems like there’s more regulation.”

A federal statute, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, has presided over a quarter-century of handheld telephony, a period of dramatic advances in the cellphone’s reach, popularity and capability. In the name of that progress, however, the law has swept aside many of local government’s planning and zoning prerogatives, outlawing the sort of arbitrary “no” that typically greets other unwelcome eyesores.

New York does enjoy one regulatory advantage, Rabold noted. “You do not have policy inconsistent with the federal-government guidelines,” she said. “We work in a number of states where they have been lobbied, and they have even less-strict policies than the federal government.” Florida and North Carolina, for example, allow small wireless stations twice the size of New York’s, Rabold said, attributing that to lobbying efforts in those states

Under a $190,000 county-funded, Bedford-coordinated contract, CityScape is assessing the wireless telecom infrastructure needs of much of northern Westchester. In addition to Bedford and Lewisboro, the communities in the study are Yorktown, Somers, North Salem, Pound Ridge and Mount Kisco.

The Feb. 8 Lewisboro presentation, the first by CityScape locally since the project’s launch in Bedford last fall, focused only on wireless capacity in Lewisboro and a mile beyond the town’s borders.

While the project will assess and map each participating locale’s wireless needs, the ultimate goal is to blend those plans, creating a comprehensive, regional approach to cell service. “We start with the individual [municipalities],” Rabold said. Then, “we’ll look at it on the big scale and see where we can find synergies.”

Identifying such potential interactions could avert unnecessary cell tower construction. A town, for example, might be able to fill a communications gap by relying, say, on a cell tower in a neighboring jurisdiction. That could eliminate the need for a redundant structure within its own borders.

In response to a question, Rabold estimated that CityScape likely would complete the full regional study in about “12 to 18 months, at the most.” 

While consultants prepare their findings, a proposed Cross River cell tower remains on hold. Homeland Towers, representing Verizon Communications Inc., wants to build a tower beside the salt dome off Spring Street. But the Town Board agreed last Sept. 14 to await the results of CityScape’s study before considering the application.