LAKE COMO, NJ — A Superior Court judge has knocked down plans by the parent company of WRAT-FM to build a radio tower nearly double the size of the existing structure at the corner of 18th Avenue and Main Street in Lake Como.
Judge Jamie Perri has dismissed an appeal filed by Greater Media Inc. to reverse the Lake Como Planning Board’s rejection of variances to permit the proposed 533-foot tower in the borough’s “general business” zone. Land-use regulations for this zone do not permit buildings exceeding 35 feet in height or the radio tower operation itself.
In her ruling, Perri said Greater Media did not present sufficient evidence that the planning board’s decision to deny the variances was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable.
“Unquestionably, Greater Media knew at the outset of this application to nearly double the height of a radio tower on Main Street of a small seashore town would be closely scrutinized by the board and would engender a degree of opposition from residents,” according to a transcript of her May 25 ruling from the state court’s Monmouth Vicinage in Freehold.
“It appears clear that the board, using its own common sense and knowledge of the area, found that Greater Media had shown little benefit to the residents of the borough of having a 533-foot tower placed on the borough’s Main Street, and that the real benefit was to Greater Media itself,” she said.
Perri made her ruling after hearing oral arguments presented on April 16 in the case, which resulted from the Lake Como planning board’s December 2013 denial of Greater Media’s application for a variance. It took nearly a year for testimony in that hearing to be completed before the board denied Greater Media’s initial application, and then another four years of delays and legal wrangling before Judge Perri’s latest ruling.
Greater Media attorney Robert Shea could not be reached for comment as to whether his client will pursue further legal action or is considering other options.
Planning Board Chairman Joseph Cavaluzzi said that Judge Perri made a thoughtful and detailed ruling that affirmed the board properly represented the residents of Lake Como.
“I’m proud of the planning board and the board’s secretary and professionals. We got to the truth in a complicated and technical application that took 10 or 11 months to present by asking good questions and not accepting testimony at face value, which is what planning boards are supposed to do,” Cavaluzzi said.
Lake Como Planning Board Attorney Adam Schneider called the decision “a win for the little guy. We got it right, and we were fair and reasonable,” he said, adding that allowing the 533-foot tower would have been good for Greater Media’s business, but not for the borough.
In its December 2013 decision, the planning board called the testimony given by several Greater Media experts, including planner John Madden Jr., “substantially lacking in credibility” — an assertion upheld by Judge Perri, who ruled the board was “free to reject the evidence witnesses it found to be less than candid or credible.”
She also ruled there is “ample evidence in the record to support a finding that (Madden’s) opinions were premised on faulty or unsupported assumptions.”
Cavaluzzi explained that board members found the testimony of Greater Media’s experts didn’t always support the case put forward by Madden. For example, he testified that a 533-foot radio tower on Main Street might have the “iconic” effect on Lake Como that the Eiffel Tower had on Paris.
“(Madden) said people wouldn’t notice it much because of the shore’s ‘hazy horizon’ and that it would blend into the gray winter sky,” Cavaluzzi said. “But he was unable to answer question from board members and residents about the specifics of things he testified to as an expert. When voting, most board members said they just didn’t believe his testimony.”
Another example of insufficient testimony is cited when Greater Media’s tower expert, mechanical and civil engineer Ernest Jones, told the board that in cold weather more ice could form on the larger tower and that the ice would be carried farther in high winds into the surrounding neighborhood. However, Jones did not directly address the safety issue, particularly since the tower would be situated next to homes, Academy Charter High School, public and school bus stops, several businesses and across the street from the Lake Como Borough Hall.
“The board felt people should be able go out in their yards, catch a bus, go to school and go to town hall to pay their taxes without getting hit by ice falling from a 530-foot tower,” Cavaluzzi said. “Board members didn’t feel people who have invested in the town on Main Street should be burdened by something with so negative an aesthetic value.”
He also pointed out that while the radio station claimed the higher tower was necessary to provide emergency alerts to some 80,000 people to the west and south, not one government official, law enforcement or emergency response official, or radio listener came out to support Greater Media’s application.
The existing 292-foot radio tower at the WRAT’s current broadcast facility at 1731 Main Street was erected in the early 1980s — nearly 20 years before Greater Media purchased the property in 2001. In 2011, Greater Media proposed to build the larger tower in Behrman Park on Green Acres-protected land situated off 22nd Avenue — a plan that was OK'd by the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Aviation Administration, but also needed the approval of the state Department of Environmental Protection due to its Green Acres status.
After waiting for nearly a year for DEP approval, Greater Media decided to revise its plan and proposed to build the towering structure at its current Main Street location.
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