BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater Township Council recently reintroduced discussion on the municipality’s current Wireless Communication Ordinance, but no decisions regarding changes have been made at this time, and the township is not currently hearing any applications for new cell towers.
“It’s been important to me for a long time,” said Councilman Filipe Pedroso, who initiated the discussion.
Pedroso served 10 years on the town zoning board, and said he witnessed many cellular phone tower applications in his tenure there. He also said that residents have had issues with cell towers and wireless communication, and that the ordinance had been about better protecting the residents since it was first unveiled in 2012.
“It’s an issue I thought was important,” said Pedroso, who joined the council that year.
He said the ordinance was something the council could go back and tweak if it needs to, and is also something he wants to be proactive about.
“It’s our job, and good government, to make things better, instead of reacting,” he said.
Pedroso said that he examined the ordinance, both to give residents more say and to better protect residential areas. He said the objective is about possibly making a few changes to the ordinance, such as in language, but not revamping it altogether.
Pedroso added that, under the current ordinance, there is almost automatic approval of cellular applications within township-owned land, near some budding neighborhoods.
“I believe this affects the entire Bridgewater community,” he said.
He added that cellular applications that have gone before the zoning board have often been the most heavily attended meetings.
“I think there are a couple of main issues,” said council vice president Matthew Moench, of the ordinance.
Moench said he wonders about ever-changing technology, and if one day cellular towers could become obsolete. He said he doesn’t want the township to be saddled with a landscape of useless towers that perhaps didn’t need to have been built.
Moench added that, generally, it is a quality of life issue. That includes the height of cell towers, and how far they are set back from residential property.
In addition, the council acknowledged that the zoning board has more authority to scrutinize such situations, as towers are ostensibly a permitted usage in planning board applications.
“It’s not that companies can’t make an application,” Moench said. “(They should just) go before the zoning board, the town has more authority there.”
Moench added that any cell towers now situated on township property are exempt from zoning. The council itself did not wish to become a de facto zoning board, taking testimony on cell towers and other matters.
“I think this is something that we should move forward with,” said Moench of re-examining the ordinance.
Councilman Howard Norgalis said that if the council needs to hold a meeting and act as the zoning board, he is willing to do that. He also said he feels the ordinance isn’t broken.
“I think it’s a mission in search of a solution,” said Norgalis, who added that he wouldn’t deal with changing the ordinance at the present time.
Moench suggested there are things that could be done to improve the ordinance, and said it is standard with zoning and planning applications that the applicant can fund an expert through escrow.
Norgalis countered that if the applicant refuses to do so, it could put their application in jeopardy, while Pedroso reiterated that changes in the ordinance’s language could be worked out.
“I don’t plan to support this at all,” said councilman Allen Kurdyla.
Kurdyla noted the change in setback from 1,000 feet to 2,000 feet, and said he feels that one would be hard-pressed to find any area in town that is 2,000 feet from a zoning district.
Kurdyla added that cell towers are usually between 75 and 125 feet in height, and not less than 50 feet. He said he agrees with Norgalis that the council shouldn’t try and fix something that is not broken.
Pedroso said the ordinance could always be made better, and Kurdyla replied that he respected that.
“My opinion, leave it the way it is,” Kurdyla said.
Moench said that there had been cell tower applications made since the ordinance was first adopted in 2012. Norgalis said there was one for Milltown Road, which was ultimately rejected.
“The system works,” Norgalis said.
Moench again said he could go over zoning board applications, and perhaps look at an increased buffer zone, and about moving applications before the zoning board.
Council president Christine Rose brought up a past litigation settlement with T Mobile. In 2016, the council approved a resolution to lease land at the Bridgewater Township Library, on Vogt Drive, for a monopole cell tower after the original application was denied by the zoning board.
Rose asked what might have been the outcome if the wireless ordinance had been in play. Deputy township attorney Chris Corsini said he wasn’t sure, but reasoned that it probably still would have had to go before the zoning board.
Norgalis said that property was town property, while Rose said that theoretically, it still would have had to go before the zoning board, due to residential property located by the library.
Pedroso said that he was not proposing to limit the ordinance solely to cell towers, just to push applications before the zoning board. He likened the zoning board to a quasi-judiciary branch that permits the cross-examination of experts and witnesses.
“It’s giving people more of a say about their land and town,” Pedroso said. “The public should have a say in what happens in its backyard.”
Norgalis joined Kurdyla in saying that if the ordinance goes forward to be changed, he will not support it.
Moench added that, if changes were suggested, he would look at previous zoning board applications to make sure those changes are actually needed.
Discussion on the ordinance was tabled until a later date, until the council can obtain more data.