Hill Street Blues: Cell Tower Plan Meets Resistance

A map of the proposed cell tower off of Hill Street in Mahopac. Credits: Photo courtesy of Putnam County

MAHOPAC N.Y. — A plan by the county to construct a cell phone tower on county property near Mahopac’s Airport Park soccer fields has angered neighboring residents, and some lawmakers, who insist that a new location should be found.

The plan to build the tower—as well as three others throughout Putnam—is part of a private-public partnership between the county and Danbury, Conn.-based Homeland Towers LLC. The project, known as the Emergency Services Network Improvement Plan, is the result of area law enforcement and EMS services’ concerns over poor cell service throughout the region. Police say the number of 911 calls made with wireless phones has significantly increased in recent years, with an estimated 70 percent of calls received by emergency dispatch centers coming from cell phones.  Earlier this year, Deputy County Executive Bruce Walker said that 254 square miles of Putnam County have holes in their coverage.

At a meeting of the legislature’s Physical Services Committee on Tuesday, July 19, the committee voted unanimously to make the legislature the lead agency under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) for all four proposed sites.

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However, some legislators said the lead agency declaration was premature and insisted more discussion about the feasibility of some of the proposed sites was necessary.

Legislator Dini LoBue (District 8), whose district encompasses parts of Mahopac, said the matter should have been tabled until more residents were made aware of the plan, which calls for one of the towers to be built off Hill Street, adjacent to Scott Road and the Airport Park athletic fields in Mahopac.

“No one in that area was aware of the project,” she told the members of the Physical Services Committee. “People need to know this is going forward. It’s summertime and some people are on vacation; we have two legislators on vacation. We should table this. It’s not an emergency. It can wait.”

However, Andrew Negro, first deputy county attorney, said the adoption of the lead agency resolution was just a preliminary step in the process and none of the proposed tower sites were set in stone.

“This is just a follow-up to the [Homeland Towers] presentation two months ago,” Negro said. “You have the legislature declared as lead agency and then all the [affected] municipalities will get the information as it becomes available. This is just to get the ball rolling for the SEQR review. It’s all very preliminary.”

Legislator Kevin Wright (District 9), whose district also includes part of Mahopac and the neighborhood impacted by the tower plan, also favored tabling the matter, saying that the proposed Hill Street site was fraught with legal red flags. He noted that the neighboring soccer fields are on county land and are leased from the county by the Town of Carmel. That, he said, could prove to be a conflict of interest.

“That conflict with Carmel is perhaps insurmountable,” he said. “There is a conflict of interest because of the lease with the ball fields. There are about 20 minefields there…because of the lease you put [Carmel] on.”

Wright said he was neither for nor against the proposed sites, but said more information was needed before anyone could decide on their viability. He contended that the Physical Services Committee has acted hastily, making the county vulnerable to possible lawsuits. He also wondered whether the process was properly followed in order to pass the Monroe Balancing Test, a legal precedent that would make the county immune to local municipalities’ zoning and planning regulations.

“This has been in the works for a long time and now – oops! – here it is,” he said. “[This resolution] says we desire to enter into an agreement to do this and to do that. You are putting the cart before the horse and opening yourself to litigation, not to mention the potential health effects. I don’t know enough [about the proposed sites] and neither do you. And now you will not have a legislative record on which you will survive.”

Wright said he wanted the county’s legal department to confirm that the process the Physical Services Committee followed met the requirements of the Monroe Balancing Test before things moved forward.

But Committee Chair Carl Albano (District 5) said that wasn’t necessary—the Monroe Balancing Test criteria were met—and that all parties affected by the proposed plan will be kept informed now that the county is officially lead agency.

“We tried to identify the sites that are best suited,” he said. [Local officials and residents] will be notified. If people think something is improper we will deal with it.”

Negro added that there will be much more discussion before anything is finalized.

“There will be further hearings and more input,” he said. “This [resolution] is not approving the sites or the lease agreements. [The county] is just declaring itself the lead agency in the SEQR review.”

Robert Gaudioso, an attorney from the law firm of Snyder & Snyder LLP, who represents Homeland Towers, said it was important to his client that all procedures be followed to the letter of the law.

“We want the proper process because if this is overturned we will have wasted all our time and money,” he said. “We have analyzed the sites and sent out notices on the impact of historic properties. We’ve looked at everything: wetlands, endangered species. Now [with the lead agency declaration] we can start to get that data out there.”

Gaudioso said Homeland wants to continue to receive comments and feedback “in case we missed something.”

“We never intentionally mislead,” he said. “Originally, the [Mahopac] plan called for a 190-foot tower, but when we discovered we didn’t need that, it was reduced to 160 feet. We expect to continue to make changes. We will have to have public hearings [for all four sites]. Then the legislature will decide: does it or does it not have enough information.”

Gaudioso said the public hearings would probably take place sometime this fall.

“People will have plenty of time to review all the documentation,” he said. “This step is merely to allow the SEQR process to move forward.”

However, some residents who live on Hill Street and the adjacent Scott Road, say they remain opposed to the proposed Mahopac site and want it removed from consideration before the process goes any further.

“I did some research and found studies that say cell phone towers can cause cancer and other [studies] that weren’t so sure,” said Hill Street resident Jerry Ravnitsky. “But would you want your child playing on a soccer field when there is a possible risk of cancer? Shouldn’t health and safety be more important that a cell tower? More research is needed to find a location that is safe. We need independent, transparent scientific studies.”

Ravnitsky’s wife, Judith, asked the committee how many residents need to oppose the Hill Street site before the county would drop it from its plans.

“How many do you need to say this?” she asked. “Is there a number? How many people will it take to persuade you?”

Judith Ravnitsky also noted that the Hill/Agar house, an historic property, also abuts the property where the cell tower is proposed.

“Now an historic preservation will have a 160-foot cell tower backed up to it,” she said.

Nick Paolicelli, a Scott Road resident, said he used to install communication systems and understands the health risks associated with them.

“We are all opposed to this on Scott Road,” he said. “They are not good for your health. So why go forward with it?”

Southeast Councilwoman Lynne Eckardt said she also believed the resolution to declare the county legislature as lead agency should have been tabled.

“There is a lot of information still lacking,” she said. “The lead agency sets the whole thing in motion. It’s a waste of time for both you and Homeland. This really snuck up on people.”

But Thomas Lannon Sr., Putnam County’s director of information technology, said it has become critical that the county remedy its wireless communication system problems as soon as possible. He said police, ambulance services and fire departments have all issued complaints.

“In fact, the PBA for the Sheriff’s Department filed a complaint saying its officers were in danger,” he said. “The system we have in place has been dying.”

Lannon said the county received a grant of $3.5 million to build new cell towers and it has until August 2018 to use that money.

Tony Sutton, county commissioner of Emergency Services, said that the world we live in dictates that police and other first responders have the best communication system possible.

“If we have a police officer down…” he said, his voice trailing off. “We are in tough shape. Yes, there is a big rush. The clock is ticking on that grant. By the time we design it and construction is done and everything is installed and tested [the grant clock could run out]. I am here to tell you we need to move this project forward. No matter what site we pick, it’s not going to be amenable to everyone.”

In the end, the committee did decide to move the project forward by voting that the county become SEQR lead agency.

“First responders need to be able to respond to each other,” said committee member Joe Castellano (District 7) after the vote. “It all starts with our first responders, emergency services. There is a concern.”

Albano reiterated that none of the proposed tower projects were ever meant to be clouded in secrecy.

“There was never a secret that was meant to be sprung on you at the last minute,” he said. “We are trying to do the best for this entire community.”

Besides the Hill Street location in Mahopac, the other three proposed cell tower sites include 29 Milan Road in Southeast; 117 Town Park Lane in Putnam Valley; and 112 Old Route 6 in Carmel.

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