Southold Town tables cell tower vote after hearing

CYNDI MURRAY FILE 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.
CYNDI MURRAY FILE 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.

Southold Town Board members decided Tuesday night to postpone a scheduled vote on a proposed code change that could pave the way for construction of a cellphone tower behind Town Hall.

The second public hearing on the possible amendment mirrored the first, which was held two weeks ago, with all speakers expressing concern that the tower would threaten the area’s small-town charm and pose potential health risks.

A defining difference from the Jan. 14 meeting, however, was the recent resolution vote against the code change proposal by town’s Historic Preservation Commission.

In a closed-door executive session Friday afternoon, commission members voted unanimously to oppose the Town Board’s proposal to permit freestanding wireless towers on vacant commercially zoned land, regardless of the parcel’s landmark status or designation as a historic district.

Currently, wireless communication facilities located within a designated historic district must be hidden 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.

During Tuesday morning’s Town Board work session, commission members explained the reasoning behind their decision.

“We understand the need for clear and effective wireless communications, especially in Southold hamlet, but not at Town Hall in the Southold Historic District,” commission chairman Jim Grathwohl told board members. “It sets a bad precedent that laws can be changed to gain additional income without regard to preserving the town’s historic landmarks.”

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 on Traveler Street, behind Town Hall. In addition to the tower, the application calls for construction of a small equipment storage shed on the site.

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

Mr. Russell said the project could create a new source of income that would benefit taxpayers, though he could not provide detailed figures. The revenue would come primarily from AT&T leasing the land, he said, and though there is a signed agreement between the two parties, they’re still in leaseholder discussions,

Mr. Russell on Tuesday pointed out some commission members’ own attempts to set precedent by amending town zoning with regard to the now- closed Sacred Heart Parish Church in Cutchogue.

“I hate to mention this in a public setting, but some of you are active in a group that is trying to save Sacred Heart Church in Cutchogue … and you met with the Planning Board to discuss alterative zoning for the site in hopes of making it more marketable … in hopes of making preservation more feasible,” he said. “How is that not setting a precedent?”

Commission members did not respond to Mr. Russell’s comments.

The commission is suggesting that the cell tower be erected on another town-owned property outside the historic district. Mr. Russell said the Town Board and AT&T had considered other locations, but were unable to identify a suitable parcel that would provide adequate cell service.

“As a practical reality, there is only this one parcel that this [amendment] would affect,” Mr. Russell said Tuesday morning.

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 added

Regardless, commission members remained firm on their decision, with some taking the podium at Tuesday night’s meeting.

“The current code is effective and should not be changed,” Mr. Grathwohl said as a final comment.

After hearing the comments, the board chose to close the hearing and table the vote until its next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall meeting room.

“You raised some very valid concerns and they will be weighed heavily by the board,” Mr. Russell said. “It would be unfortunate to presume we haven’t looked at all the available science, as we have dealt with cell towers for a number of years now. We don’t want to rush to judgment.”

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