MAHOPAC, N.Y. - While residents in a Croton Falls Road neighborhood have been celebrating the Planning Board’s decision earlier this year not to approve the construction of a cell tower in their vicinity, residents on Walton Drive and other roads adjacent to the Maple Hill Estates housing development are decrying the decision to move the project there.
The decision to move the tower to Maple Hill was the result of an out-of-court settlement between the town of Carmel and Homeland Towers.
Danbury-based Homeland Towers, in conjunction with Verizon Wireless, had sought to build a cell tower in the Croton Falls Road neighborhood, but residents there rallied, hired an attorney, and fought hard against the proposal. Despite their underdog status—the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 considers wireless carriers a utility and gives local municipalities very little leeway regarding tower construction—the residents prevailed when the Planning Board denied Homeland’s site plan application.
Homeland then filed an Article 78 lawsuit against the town, seeking to have the Planning Board’s decision overturned.
Councilman Frank Lombardi said a federal judge urged the two parties to find a compromise before the case came to court.
“Our hands are tied by federal statute,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that municipalities don’t have much say. It’s extremely limited. When it got to federal court, the judge said, get this resolved.”
Lombardi said if the case had gone to court, the town would have likely lost.
“We would have incurred expenses from discovery and depositions, and it could have cost us as much as $500,000 to $600,000. And we were advised by counsel the likelihood of success would be minimal at best.”
So, as part of the settlement agreement, the 140-foot cell tower was moved to Maple Hill Estates, where the homeowners’ association there approved the project. The HOA will receive lease money from the wireless carrier and the town will receive a stipend as well.
Three locations were considered within Maple Hill Estates, but the one that was chosen abuts right against Walton Drive, which is not part of the development. Residents in that neighborhood are livid over the decisions and share the same concerns the Croton Falls Road residents had—that the tower presents health risks and could lower property values.
“It will be just feet from my doorstep,” said Walton Drive resident Rob Cavallaro, who has been organizing his neighbors to unite against the project and created a Facebook page to inform residents about it. “With this settlement, they bypassed the procedures. There is no SEQR [the state’s environmental quality review] and no site plan approval, no hearings for the residents, and my neighbors are over-the-moon upset. The fact our voices were left out was uncalled-for. We should have been a part of negotiations.”
Cavallaro said the neighbors have been meeting to discuss what they should do and have been interviewing attorneys. He said they reached out to Robert Giordano, the attorney who successfully represented the Croton Falls Road group, but he said he couldn’t help because it would be a conflict of interest.
“I don’t think there is too much we can do from a legal standpoint,” Cavallaro said, but added that there are still three points of contention the neighbors would like addressed:
1. Why weren’t the neighbors informed earlier in the process?
2. Since the town has had a fund established by Homeland, why can’t the Walton Drive neighborhood have a fund established to help pay for any future medical bills?
3. Why was this site chosen out of three potential locations in Maple Hill Estate?
“There is no turnaround [on Walton], and the amount of construction is going to be so impactful,” Cavallaro said. “They were here before and when they left, their SUVs were popping U-turns on our lawn. If that is an indication of things to come, we are in big trouble.
“Our properties are going to be devalued,” he added. “They have taken our world and shook the hell out of it.”
Craig Vieira, another Walton Drive resident, said that while the Town Board sent some of the area residents a letter explaining what was happening, “they didn’t say it was going to be 100 feet from the houses.”
“They didn’t take our concerns into consideration and no one told us it was coming here,” he said. “Is it fair just because you settled?”
The letter sent by the Town Board to the Walton Drive families was obtained by Mahopac News and does state that a “series of balloon and crane tests were conducted at the proposed site.” But Vieira said most of the neighborhood is quarantining from the pandemic and was unaware they were taking place.
“I’m shuttered in my home, so how do I know what is going on down the road?” he asked.
Vieira also pointed out that Homeland had to prove there was a need for a tower on Croton Falls Road because of a lapse in coverage, but Maple Hill Estates is on the other side of town.
“Our cell service is perfect here; we have no issues,” he said. “Right now, I have four bars.”
Jennifer McCormack, another Walton Drive resident, said she first learned about the tower from an article in Mahopac News announcing the out-of-court settlement. McCormack said that she, too, was unaware of any balloon or crane test.
“We were not made aware of it and never saw it,” she said. “We’ve been told it’s a done deal and there is nothing we can do about it. We have talked to a number of attorneys to get a handle on what we can do because it doesn’t look like they followed the proper process. We are feeling a little bit overwhelmed.”
Cavallaro, who has referred to the tower as the “death tower” on the group’s Facebook page, said he knows law prevents plaintiffs from arguing about health issues, but nonetheless, it’s his major concern.
“We are deathly afraid of the health impacts regarding EMF. otherwise known as electromagnetic frequencies,” he said. Studies have shown that anyone living within a quarter mile of this tower is at risk for a variety of different illnesses. I have two small children; we moved here to get away from the hustle and bustle of New Rochelle, and I honestly thought I would never have to deal with something like this. This was supposed to be my forever home but if this tower moves in, I will have no choice but to protect my family.”
Yet, there may be a glimmer of hope. Councilwoman Suzi McDonough, along with Supervisor Ken Schmitt and town engineer Rich Franzetti walked the property where the cell tower is planned last week, and McDonough said she was taken aback by how close it would be to the Walton Drive homes.
“We just walked the property, and we will see if there is a possibility of moving it a little further away so it’s not literally in their backyard. But I can’t make any promises,” McDonough said. “Seeing it firsthand, I thought this is crazy. If I didn’t go and see it myself, I wouldn’t believe it. Hopefully, we can work things out because I think Homeland wants to be a good neighbor.”
Meanwhile, Lombardi said he commiserates with the homeowners’ plight.
“I feel for them, I really do,” he said. “I totally understand and if there was anything the town could have done, we would have.”
McDonough agreed and admitted the town could have done a better job communicating with the residents.
“It’s unfortunate and I do think communication could have happened better with the neighbors and I apologized for that,” she said. “The cell towers are coming and there’s not much we can do. We did update our [cell tower] ordinance a few years ago and that has helped a little because it could have been a free-for-all.
“We gave [Homeland] a list of town-owned properties and I think it would be better to put [cell towers there]. But we are just little peons when compared to the federal government and what they want to do,” she added.