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Mattituck Fire District sues Southold Town over cell tower

The Mattituck Fire District and Elite Towers have filed a lawsuit against Southold Town and its Planning Board over the planned construction of a 120-foot wireless tower at Laurel Stone Supply in Mattituck.

Along with Verizon Wireless and AT&T, the plaintiffs submitted an application to the Planning Board in August 2017 for a site plan and special exception permit to construct the cell tower. The fire district also proposed installing an antenna atop the 120-foot pole, thus raising it to a height of 132 feet.

Citing “significant weaknesses and deficiencies” in their communications system, Mattituck Fire District officials said the new tower would be used in conjunction with an existing tower at Mattituck Fire Department headquarters to improve communication in the western portion of Southold Town.

In August 2018, Southold Fire District officials submitted a letter of support for the proposed tower, noting that it would benefit their department as well and “could also be beneficial in the future to town-wide fire department emergency communications.”

About 70 percent of 911 calls are made from cell phones, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission.

At a meeting Dec. 3, however, the Planning Board voted to conditionally approve the application only if the applicants reduced the height of the tower to 80 feet. Other conditions for approval include additional landscaping to meet town code and further reduce visual impacts and adding green privacy slats to the chain link fence surrounding the equipment compound.

According to Southold Town code, wireless communications facilities located in the General Business “B” zoning district are limited to 80 feet, must be at least 500 feet away from adjacent residential property lines or streets and should be screened with evergreen trees along the base equipment area.

The applicants had been seeking a special permit to increase the height of the tower.

The federal complaint, filed Jan. 4 in the United States Eastern District Court, alleges that “in reaching the decision, the Planning Board ignored the substantial evidence in the administrative record that the Facility was needed at the proposed height, and that a forty-foot reduction in height would significantly impair the ability of the Applicants to serve the public.”

Supplemental reports from Verizon and AT&T show that an 80-foot pole would not address the “existing coverage deficiency” in the Laurel area, according to court documents.

Verizon Wireless and AT&T stated that they would lose approximately 1 square mile of coverage in the area if the structure were reduced in height. Sprint had also expressed interest in placing equipment at the site.

“The decision, however, ignores the substantial evidence showing the minimum height needed by the Applicants to provide the necessary improved cell and emergency communications services,” according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs are being represented by Ré, Nielsen & Coughlin of Huntington.

The suit further alleges that the Planning Board decision violates the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which designated cellular towers as “vital” infrastructure and sets provisions over placement of towers. It also cites a 1993 New York Court of Appeals case, which found that “applications for the construction of cell sites necessary to remedy gaps … are subject to a more lenient treatment under zoning laws, especially where the ‘intrusion or burden on the community is minimal.’ ”

The suit, claiming that the proposed location is “the only feasible option to serve the identified gaps in the applicants’ communications systems,” seeks a reversal of the Planning Board decision.

Southold Town officials declined comment on pending litigation.

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Photo caption: The Laurel Stone Supply in Mattituck where the cell town is proposed to be sited. (Tara Smith)