Friday, February 1, 2008

Cranford Chronicle 2/01/2008

Cell Tower Applicants Face Some Skeptical Questioning

Friday, February 01, 2008

CRANFORD - A radio frequency engineer testifying on behalf of a proposed cell tower at the Cranford Swimming Club faced skeptical questioning from opposing attorneys and Zoning Board of Adjustment members, as the legal wrangling over the controversial application continued Monday night.

The proposal, under which a consortium of four wireless phone companies hopes to build a 130- foot monopole and a 2,760-square foot equipment compound at the edge of CSC's County Park Drive property, has galvanized fierce opposition from neighbors in Cranford and Westfield. Verizon Wireless, Sprint Mobile, AT& T and Omnipoint, a branch of T-Mobile, argue they need the tower to fill a gap in coverage, but residents in both towns have expressed concern about the impact the pole would have on their health, aesthetics, and property values.

A crowd of about 100 people filled council chambers for Monday's hearing, the third on the proposal, which lasted about three hours and was dedicated mostly to cross examination. The application has been continued to March, and a final decision is not likely for months.
Radio frequency engineer Glen Pierson had testified in favor of the proposal at a December hearing. He returned to the stand Monday. In response to questioning from the applicants' attorney, Greg Meese, Pierson said that the tower is necessary to address a gap in cellular coverage in the area. Using a graph to back up his point, Pierson said that the anticipated future demand would overwhelm the existing network.

But Board Chairman Robert Hellenbrecht questioned Pierson about the projected amount of wireless traffic over time, noting that the current peak level of call volume had only been hit a few times.

"I don't disagree that traffic is going up and that has to be dealt with, but I don't think it's to a threatening level," Hellenbrecht said.

Pierson responded, saying that special events such as holidays or inclement weather often cause more call traffic. As wireless use increases, that would cause blocked and dropped calls at peak hours, he said.

The hearing became more rancorous when Pierson faced cross-examination from John Schmidt of Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper, who has been hired by about 40 residents to represent them in the case, and Norman Albert, first deputy counsel for Union County. In addition to the residents' objections, the county has publicly opposed the proposed tower because of its proximity to Lenape Park, part of the Rahway River Parkway Historic District. (The same factor led the state's Historic Preservation Office to draft a letter opposing the tower.)

Schmidt questioned the testing methods that were used and argued that the phone companies have not shared the core empirical data generated by those tests. Without that information, he said, the need for the new tower can not be proven.

Examining the maps that had been presented by Pierson as evidence of a gap, Schmidt also contended that for all of the carriers except Verizon Wireless, the coverage area for the proposed antennas would have at least a 50 percent overlap with existing antennas. Pierson responded that overlapping coverage provides seamless transitions for cell phone users.

Schmidt also attempted to introduce advertisements from the carriers touting their coverage in the area, and Albert asked Pierson if the application were strong enough to be permitted on protected park land. Meese objected that those topics were outside the scope of Pierson's testimony, and the questions were withdrawn.

The hearing will be continued at 8:15 p.m. March 10 in council chambers. At that point, the applicant is expected to introduce testimony from a professional planner and from another witness who will discuss alternate locations considered for the tower.

Leslie Murray is staff writer for the Chronicle. She can be reached at (732) 396-4205 or