MAHOPAC, N.Y. - The Planning Board has scheduled public hearings for two controversial plans to build cell towers on residential properties in Mahopac.

The hearings are scheduled for the board’s next meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 14. The towers are proposed to be built at 254 Croton Falls Road (also known as the Lake Casse site) and at 36 Dixon Road.

The plans have drawn criticism from residents and some town officials because they would be built on private property in residential areas. Town code prioritizes desirable sites for cell towers and puts residentially zoned areas at the bottom of the list. However, federal law—the Telecommunications Act of 1996—limits what local municipalities can do. The applicant—Danbury, Conn.-based Homeland Towers—calls the locations the best options to fill gaps in cellular coverage in those areas.

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A group of residents in the Croton Falls Road neighborhood has hired an attorney in an effort to thwart or alter the plan. They contend the tower is a blight on the landscape and could lower property values in the area.

Homeland was in front of the Planning Board again at its July 31 meeting to lay out changes it has made to the applications—most significantly, reducing the height of the towers.

The Croton Falls Road plan initially called for a 180-foot tower but it was lowered to 160 feet in subsequent revisions. Then, at the July 31 meeting, the attorney representing Homeland said the tower had been lowered yet again, this time to 140 feet.

“Since we last met, we have revised the materials [for the Croton Falls Road application] in a number of different ways,” the attorney, Robert Gaudioso of Snyder & Snyder, told the board. “We have reduced the height to 140 feet where we now think we can reasonably offer a ‘tree’ option.”

The “tree option” means that a monopole can now be disguised as a pine tree because at 140 feet it would be closer to the natural tree line. If the tower had been higher, it would have been above the tree line and a tree design would have presented aesthetic issues.

“A tree pole would have looked goofy at 180 feet,” Gaudioso said, “but we are fine with either option (with or without the tree design) and will leave that to the discretion of the Planning Board. There might be some feedback from the ZBA [Zoning Board of Appeals] regarding the two alternatives. Ultimately, the design will be this board’s prerogative.”

If the town opts for the tree design, Gaudioso said, the monopole would be covered with a “sock”—a colored covering, rather than painting it.

Planning Board member Raymond Cote asked whether Homeland could come back later and extend the height of the tower if it was initially built at 140 feet. He was told that it could be raised no more than 10 percent (in this case, 14 feet).

Asked by Cote whether Homeland would be willing to rule out future height increases as a condition of site-plan approval, Gaudioso called that a bad idea. If Homeland, or some future owner of the tower, needed to add more capacity and couldn’t raise the tower, he said, a new tower would be required.

“I think it would be bad planning for us and bad planning for the town because it might handcuff everybody in the future if someone did prove that they needed the height,” Gaudioso said. “If they could prove they needed a higher height, technically under federal law they could get another tower and I don’t think anyone wants that.”

Manny Vicente, president of Homeland Towers, said that he’s never sought to have a tower’s height increased after it was constructed.

“Every time we design a tower, whether we think it’s sufficient height or not, we always design the foundation for an extension,” he said. “But I have been building towers for 12 years at Homeland Towers and we’ve never extended a tower, and we’ve built about 50 of them.

“There are a few reasons for that,” he continued. “No. 1, when we agree to a minimum height, we don’t want to agree to a height that doesn’t allow for co-location [adding more carriers] without an extension. We think this height does that. If an extension is required, that cost usually gets passed on to the carriers, so it discourages them financially from adding that extension. When you have a mono-pine (the tree design), it becomes even more expensive and that further discourages them from extending the tower unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

Ronald Graiff, a radio frequency consulting engineer hired by the town to review the radio frequency application and help with the technical aspects of the plan, said the original proposal of 180 feet was “significantly overreached.”

“Then they submitted more information and those results illustrated more accurately that 136 feet was probably the minimum height required for their antenna,” Graiff said.

Graiff also agreed that increasing the height down the road would be problematic.

“You are designing this as a tree, and if it were to be increased you would have to change all the branches and the shape of the tree,” he said. “You want it to continue to look like a conifer. It’s my professional opinion to draw a line in the sand and say this is as high as it can go.”

Officials noted that Homeland still needs some variances for the Croton Falls Road tower. Mike Carnazza, the town’s building inspector, said that while the Croton Falls plan calls for a 140-foot tower, town code only allows towers up to 75 feet. A variance would be needed for the extra 65 feet. Additionally, town code calls for a 24-foot wide aisle into the site, but plans call for one that is just 12 feet wide, thus requiring another variance. A variance would also be needed for the 8-foot fence planned to enclose the tower’s 36-by-100-foot equipment compound.

Town engineer Rich Franzetti said that the compound fence would warrant a referral to the Mahopac Volunteer Fire Department, New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

“The applicant has acknowledged the need for these referrals,” Franzetti said. “I want to make sure the applicant is aware that it’s up to them to go make these referrals. I think they’re aware of that already. Permits will also be needed from the state for stormwater.”

Additionally, the original plan called for electrical service to the Croton Falls Road site to be installed underground. The revised plan allows for service to be installed on seven poles that pass in front of the neighboring property. Typically, the board requires that all utility lines be placed underground.

“I can’t recall an instance where [the Planning Board] has not required utility connections to be provided underground,” said Pat Cleary, the town’s planning consultant.

Gaudioso said Homeland would be amenable to burying the electrical wires.

“While it’s not required by the code, we don’t have any problem putting [the electrical] underground,” he told the board. “The reason we showed it above ground here is we wanted to show the option. We don’t have any problem putting them underground as long as the ECB (Environmental Conservation Board) is OK with that.”

Planning Board Chair Craig Paeprer said, “We would prefer them underground, especially when you think about seven poles.” 

The tower on Dixon Road will also be lowered from the original plan of 156 feet to 110 feet. And like the Croton Falls Road site plan, a variance would be needed for a tower that high. There is no issue with the electrical there—the original plan called for the wires to be underground and that has not changed. Another stipulation for the Dixon Road plan is that it must demonstrate that the tower will not unreasonably interfere with the view from nearby McDonough Park.

With the public hearings for the project now slated for Aug. 14, Gaudioso said Homeland would extend the “shot clock” until the end of September. The Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 allows cell tower applicants to set a “shot clock” if it feels local boards aren’t responding quickly enough. The law states that state and local officials should ordinarily take no more than 90 days to act on wireless applications.