MONTVILLE, NJ - Approximately 45 Towaco residents attended the monthly meeting of the Towaco Fire Commissioners Board at the Towaco Volunteer Fire Station last Wednesday night March 18, to hear more information and state their concerns about a cellular tower that the Commissioners Board has contracted with Verizon to have built on the fire station property.

Hugh Merritt, a Towaco resident, alerted neighbors to a legal notice he read on March 4 notifying the public that “Celico Partnership and its controlled affiliates doing business as Verizon Wireless proposes to build a 126-foot monopole communications tower” at the Towaco Fire Station located across the street from the Towaco train station on Whitehall Road.

Towaco Board of Fire Commissioners President William MacStudy explained the need for the new tower.

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“Verizon came to us because they want to [add] wi-fi [to] the rail system, which is part of the national grid. It would have two antennas, facing the railroad tracks,” explained MacStudy.

But adding wi-fi antennas to the existing tower proved to be a problem.

Commissioner John Connelly explained, “They looked at the height of our tower, which is about 100 feet, plus the antenna makes 117 feet and they said our tower was unsafe to climb and unsafe to carry their cellular equipment.  At that point in time, they offered us the opportunity to place, at their expense, a single mono-pole tower with their antennas at the very top.  I believe the proposed height of their antenna is 123 feet, so it’s only about 10 feet higher.”

The fire commissioners saw the new tower, which Verizon later stated they wanted to add cellular antennas to, as the answer to two problems: communications gaps and the expense of repairing or replacing the current tower.

“By raising the tower to 126 feet, it allows us, the fire department, to raise the police, fire department, and the ambulance antennas that are up there, to give us a wider band for [communicating with] our emergency services throughout the Township,” he explained.

Further, the commissioners want to increase the height of the tower so fire pagers can be heard when volunteer firefighters are in businesses in Lincoln Park.

MacStudy explained the economics of erecting the tower: “We, the Board, are not paying a penny for this cell tower to get put in. The Board will be receiving some [lease] money from that tower.”

Residents stood at the meeting to express their concerns with what they called the commisioners’ lack of transparency.

“What was bothersome was, no one within the Township knew – the Township engineer, the land use boards, no one on the Township Committee,” stated Towaco resident George Sinner.

“You realize, as ex-chief, that we don’t answer to the Township,” stated MacStudy. You elect us every February, and the Board of Fire Commissioners runs the fire department.  When you say you went to the Township, we didn’t even approach the Township yet. This is so preliminary that we were notified the same time you found out.  I found out from a Committee Member in town that there was a thing in the paper about this.”

Towaco resident Shawn Gilfedder asked the Board if they knew of the cellular tower that neighboring Montville United Methodist Church had approached its parishioners about but was later rejected and Connelly stated he had known, but was surprised when a cellular tower was built on his next-door neighbor’s property without his being notified.

“So you can imagine how surprised we are,” stated Gilfedder.  “We’re your neighbors. Did the Board form a communications committee to manage communications between the neighbors and the Township? Had you had any consideration for that?”

“Once it went to the town, you guys all know about that because it was in the paper,” replied MacStudy.

Gilfedder then asked why the decision or the details were not communicated directly to Towacoans, to which MacStudy replied that “At that point we weren’t sure how far it was going.”

Gilfedder stated, “This has been managed so well, that you found out about [the legal notice in the paper] from the town council.”

“That’s right,” stated MacStudy, “I got a phone call saying ‘what’s going on?’ I was not notified by Verizon.”

Sinner asked if the Board had received bids from other companies to repair or replace the tower, and MacStudy stated that no other bids had been sought.  Connelly stated, “In theory, you could leave the tower there, but that tower needs repair.  If you go outside you can see wires hanging from that tower that are broken and need to be reattached.  The estimate at the last town-wide [fire] commissioners’ meeting was about $3,000 to $4,000 just to climb the tower to do the repairs.  That’s what it’s costing the town to repair the tower on River Road.  So we’re assuming the price is the same to climb our tower.  As far as leaving the tower there, it might be at the end of its useful life.”

Connelly stated the price to replace the tower could be between $30,000 to $50,000, but MacStudy stated the Board didn’t know for sure.  Residents stated their concerns that the Board had been notified that the tower was obsolete by a party interested in  using the tower for additional, commercial purposes.

Merritt stated, “With regard to Verizon entrée, it started with the ‘wi-fi grid,’ then it jumped to the cellular,” to which MacStudy replied that “Once they’re investing the money, they said they would go to a full cell tower.”

“That’s what’s known as the baited hook,” stated Merritt.  “We don’t know right now how much it would cost to repair.  That should be looked at by a non-Verizon-interested company.”

MacStudy stated that the contract was an agreement between the Fire Commissioners and Verizon only.  “Just so everybody knows, nobody can go out on that tower without Verizon’s approval, and our approval.  So AT&T can’t walk in and say, ‘We’re going to put towers up,’ Sprint can’t come in there, because if the Board doesn’t agree to allow it, it doesn’t happen.  They only control the tower, we control everything else.  That was part of the contract.  We didn’t want five different companies on it.  We could have sold it to everybody, but that’s not what we want.”

However, Sinner informed the Board that their agreement was not actually with Verizon.  “Are you aware that Verizon sold all its cell phone towers recently?  You might want to follow that up and see if you’re dealing with Verizon or someone else.  It was publicized not too long ago.”

But the most emotionally charged concern for residents was that of safety.

Towaco resident Peter Giannoglou stated, “I’m an engineer in the wireless industry and I work with Verizon. I know what the equipment looks like on the ground and in the towers.  It seems you’re taking a low antenna and replacing it with what will become an antenna farm.

“It starts with two antennas pointed to the tracks so that they can have wi-fi and eventually become a full blown suburban cell site.  They’re the most powerful. Because there’s a lot of population and a lot of reach.

“Verizon has four bands and four sets of antennas, times three sectors because they typically set up sites in triangular form.  So that’s 12 antennas.

“There’s a new technique where they use multiple output, multiple input, so multiply that by two or even four.

“The message is that there’s hundreds of watts coming out of each antenna in all directions.  The concern is one of health.  I have young children.  You talked about keeping the community safe from fire.  But from radiation, that’s a different matter.

“I’m not sure you’ve considered the safety concerns. Also if you look at the property in this area, many of us live up on the hill.  Some of us are going to be at eye-level with those antennas, which is quite bad.  These antennas have a slight down-tilt.  When they’re down low, we don’t get hit by them but when you’re at eye-level, you get hit pretty hard.  Some of the people who live up the hill might be blasted directly with RF [radiofrequency] waves.

“I work with RF engineers, and they are very respectful of RF energy and they do whatever they can to shield themselves from that energy when working with it, because they know it can cause physiological harm.

“What I see going on here is Verizon must be salivating because they failed at the church, but they got in the door with the ruse that they’re giving you something.  But the towers are not alike, and they reserve the right to put more things and before you know there will be at least 12 antennas up there radiating several hundred watts out of each.

“I think a lot of people in the neighborhood feel very concerned not just about the aesthetics,” concluded Giannoglou.

MacStudy replied, “We wrote them a letter about the lights when there was the ad in the paper.  I also spoke to the Verizon representative we’ve dealt with and said ‘if you have to put lights on it, it’s a dead deal.’”

Giannoglou replied, “The message here is, can you look at this and see if you can get out of it because for a very little amount of money it’s going to cause a lot of distress for many people.  It’s going to be a lot more visable.  The concern about the radiation is it could do a lot of damage.”

MacStudy replied that they had asked Verizon for information about safety concerns and had not yet received it.

Giannoglou replied, “Their contractors’ sole purpose is to acquire towers.  They came in and surprise, surprise said, ‘this is not going to work, we’re going to give you a new tower.’  I’m sure you understand that this was part of their game.  They are in desperate need of a full-blown tower in the area.  They tried next door [at the church] and failed, and then they saw another opportunity – here’s a need. They got their foot in the door and suddenly you have a very different animal, with radiation coming down here as well.  The greater danger is not under the tower.  But when you’re at eye-level, up the hill here, we’re going to be getting bombarded.  It’s about 500 watts.”

Board member Scott Russell responded, “You raised some valid points.  I voted for it because with the information we discussed, it seemed to enhance the security of the area.  It seemed like we were doing a service for which we were elected, to provide better fire service.  That’s why I voted for it, it seemed like a no-brainer.  These are very valid points, though.  I think we should consider them and get some answers to this and make sure our decision is right whichever way we go.  We appreciate your thoughts.”

Towaco resident Vincent Fialla raised concerns about additional companies’ antennas on the tower and the ability of Verizon’s lawyers to win every lawsuit regarding towers.

“I’m a lawyer, and in all the legal papers there’s been a lot of fights with Verizon, and AT&T, all the companies,” stated Fialla.  “The way they set up their corporations, they eventually end up with full control of what they put on the tower.  You may be right and a Verizon employee may have to get up there and put it on there but they can sub-lease their space and put other antennas on there.  It’s been litigated throughout the entire state and they won every single time.

“The other thing they’re very good at, is, they have a whole fleet of land-use attorneys.  Once this lands on the zoning board’s desk, their attorneys are very skilled at getting what they want.  They do that very easily and they’ve done it many times, in many townships, to those who have said, ‘we don’t want cell towers.’  And what the courts have said is, ‘you can’t just say we don’t want cell towers because they’re dangerous or the residents don’t want them.’ [Verizon] can appeal any board that overrules the decision to build.  So once it reaches that level where it’s going before the board, it’s as good as approved.  I’m telling you from experience, [Verizon] doesn’t lose.  They take it all the way up the chain and win 99% of the time.  To depend on the [planning] board to do what’s right for the residents is a false sense of security because at that point it’s over.

“We understand that you protect us and provide fire services, and you need an antenna so that your systems work, so your firefighters know when there’s a fire.   That’s not what this is about.  This is about a cell tower and profit.  It’s not about getting better service.  It’s clear to everyone in this room that it may have seemed like a good deal, and I’m sure that’s how Verizon pitched it, but when you factor in the safety, and the concerns that the residents have about the radiation, and the fact that you have a nursery school right here behind this tower and then you have the residents, most of whom are here who live on the hill at eye-level with this thing, it just doesn’t seem like as good of a deal and worth the risk for the safety of the residents or certainly the kids at the nursery school,” concluded Fialla.

Towaco resident David Fall asked the Board to consider that “there’s three nursery schools within 1,000 feet of the tower, and Cedar Hill Elementary School close by.  I think you’re hearing some legitimate concerns.”

Towaco resident Terry Becker stated, “Thank you for trying to improve your service to us.  When the Board of Education dealt with JCP&L, the Board hired an independent contractor to monitor the emissions.  We need an independent contractor to monitor these emissions.  But what are we to do if we find out these radiation levels are too high?  We can’t sell our homes?”

Becker continued, “Is the Board’s attorney skilled with these types of contracts?  It is highly specialized and you cannot beat Verizon.”

Towaco resident Evan Shenkman stated, “You’re asking the right questions after you’ve already signed the contract.  There wasn’t a reasoned, thoughtful approach of all the issues in place before you signed a deal with Verizon.”

Towaco resident Doug Bilenski asked how the Board would now vote, considering the concerns raised.  MacStudy stated, “Right now I have to reconsider where we’re at.  We’re not trying to endanger anybody’s kids.”

“Verizon is going to say there’s no risk, but do they really know?” stated Bilenski.  “I’m emotional about it because it concerns my children.”

Board member John Misiewicz told Bilenski, “You’ve made the most valid point tonight that I’ve heard.  Children first.”

Residents expressed interest in seeing the actual contract. MacStudy stated he would consult with Board lawyer Anthony Bucco before doing so, but that he hopes to do so by March 20th.

 “We’re putting up a cell phone tower to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” stated Sinner.  “The current tower should be looked at, not by Verizon, but by a different engineering firm to solve the problems you have with receiving.  I think everyone who spoke here tonight is saying from their heart that they have serious concerns with this plan.”

After many residents departed, and the Board had discussed new business, MacStudy stated, “A lot of concerns were brought up; a lot of good points were made. We’re going to have to talk to Bucco about what are our options of getting out of it.  I’m seeing that they don’t want the tower here. We’ll have to look at it and discuss it as a Board and tell Bucco to hold up filing the land use permit if he hasn’t already filed it to give us time to discuss this further.

Russell stated that Board discussions of the questions raised could do be done at the next meeting.  “Then we could have the public involved at the next meeting,” he stated. “It gives us time to get the information that we’ve asked for and have a regular public meeting, and people can come up here and voice their opinions.  We can give our answers coming from Verizon. Nothing’s going to happen within the month.”

MacStudy replied, “It’s not a dead issue.  They brought up a lot of valid points.  We brought up some valid points, and in the event it’s a failure we’ll have to spend the money and put up a new tower up ourselves. If we have to raise taxes, we have to raise taxes later.”

Misiewicz replied, “That’ll be their problem at that time.  I don’t think they’re worried about that.”

Misiewicz continued, “A couple of them brought up points that were just exaggerated. But the tower … for the rf signals, that’s the point -- for the children -- that’s the key.  Everything else was just snow.  That’s the main concern.”