Residents rally against proposed cellphone tower

CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | Southold Town is looking to amend its wireless facilities code to permit cell towers on historic sites, such as the parcel behind Town Hall.

A plan to install a cellphone tower behind Southold Town Hall — and amend the town code to permit that — is drawing heat from residents who fear more towers would threaten the area’s small-town charm and present potential health risks.

More than two dozen people rallied Tuesday night for the first public hearing on the proposed code change. Most voiced an overwhelming resistance to the proposed amendment.

“You are simply changing the law to shoehorn these eyesores in the middle of our historic district,” said Robert Harper of the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, who noted that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the commission. “It’s like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”

As it stands, wireless communication facilities located within a designated historic district must be concealed within or behind an existing building, such as a church steeple, so that the tower is not visible to the public, according to the draft law.

The proposed code change would permit freestanding wireless towers on vacant, commercially zoned land, regardless of the parcel’s landmark status or designation as a historic district.

The move to revise a section of the town code comes after communications giant AT&T submitted an application requesting to construct a freestanding, 100-foot cellphone tower on a vacant lot behind Town Hall on Traveler Street. In addition to the tower, the application also calls for the construction of a small equipment storage shed on the site.

“If this passes I would consider it the tallest monument to short-sightedness,” Mr. Harper said.

Health risks were a repeated concern among residents at the meeting.

“I know that as of yet there is no documented proof that radio waves from cellphone towers cause any kind of public health risk, but I also know that 60 or 70 years ago people thought cigarette smoking was a dynamite thing to do,” said Adrian Lynch, who lives nearby on Youngs Avenue. “Its proximity to our schools in Southold Town concerns me. In 50, 60 years from now when it comes to light that putting these things near growing bodies isn’t [healthy for people], I don’t think you’d want to be on the wrong side of that discovery.”

Supervisor Scott Russell said the town has little wiggle room when it comes to the placement of the tower, due to Federal Communications Commission regulations.

“The proposal is not to introduce a new cellphone tower to Southold, the proposal is to guide the location of a cellphone tower [whose building] is imminent,” Mr. Russell said. “The FCC is removing more and more authority from local jurisdiction. They are making it clear that they want to remove local zoning authority over cell towers. The Town Board’s vision is that if we are going to have to live with it, at the very least we can try to extend the benefit to as many taxpayers as possible, because it is a revenue source.”

The cost to build the proposed AT&T cell tower is approximately $125,000, according to the building permit application.

With the town’s traditional revenue sources — including real estate taxes — drying up, Mr. Russell said the project could create a new source of income that would benefit taxpayers.

The revenue would come primarily from AT&T leasing the land, Mr. Russell said. While there is a signed agreement between the two parties, which are still in leaseholder discussions, Mr. Russell could not immediately provide estimates on the total annual revenue for the town.

Even if the amendment to the local draft law was passed, the town’s Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Historic Preservation Commission would still be responsible for reviewing any wireless tower application before it’s approved, the supervisor said.

During Tuesday’s hearing, the Town Board provided letters from the Planning Board and the Suffolk County Planning Commission in support of the code change.

The Historic Preservation Commission has yet to provide an official opinion on the proposal, Mr. Russell said.

The board left the public hearing open until the Historic Preservation Commission could weigh in on the matter.

Commission chairman Jim Grathwohl could not be reached for comment.

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