Friday, March 14, 2008

Cranford Chronicle 3/14/2008

At Hearing, Lawyers Spar Over Alternate Tower Site

Friday, March 14, 2008

CRANFORD - The contentious hearing on an application to construct a cell phone tower at the Cranford Swimming Club (CSC) continued this week, as a site acquisition expert for a consortium of wireless phone companies testified about the lack of potential sites in the surrounding area. But the Board of Adjustment did not make a decision, and another meeting has been scheduled for May.

About 50 people attended Monday's hearing, the fourth on an application that has generated intense opposition from neighboring residents and objections from both county and state government.

Verizon Wireless has taken the lead role in a group of four cell companies -- Sprint Mobile, AT& T and T-Mobile are also involved -- that is seeking to build a 130-foot monopole and a 2,760-square foot equipment compound at the edge of CSC's County Park Drive property. The club's property straddles the border between Cranford and Westfield, and residents in both towns have hired an attorney to represent their objections. The residents claim the tower is out of place in the residential area and question the phone companies' assertion of a gap in coverage.

Because of the proposed tower's proximity to county-owned Lenape Park, which is part of the historic Rahway River Parkway, the application has also drawn opposition from the Union County Board of Freeholders and the state Historic Preservation Office.

At Monday's hearing Greg Meese, an attorney for the applicant, elicited testimony from site acquisition expert Claire DiNardo regarding what he called a lack of alternative locations.

Testifying that she was contracted to perform the search in late 2003, DiNardo said that she was given a circular search area about a mile wide, extending from the swim club south to the intersection of Orchard and Tulip streets, and ranging from Nomahegan Park to Fairview Cemetery. Within those confines, there were no properties that met the guidelines of the Cranford telecommunications ordinance -- namely, areas that were zoned for commercial use or had existing tall structures.

DiNardo said that she contacted the Cranford Swimming Club, Union County College, Nomahegan Park, Fairview Cemetery, Dreyer Farms and Sunrise Senior Living Facility during her search, but only the swim club expressed interest.

Beside those locations, "every other property is a single-family type use with a house on it without space for a facility," DiNardo said.

DiNardo said she had sent five letters to Union County College expressing interest in the placing a tower on the college's Cranford campus, but the repeated requests were all rebuffed.

Asked by board member Chris Drew if the college's rejection was unusual, DiNardo said she could not say with certainty. "I can't tell you if there is a specific trend, but I can tell you there are other colleges and universities that have (cell towers)," she said.

Outlining the other responses, DiNardo said she was told by county legal officials that Nomahegan Park was encumbered by Green Acres restrictions and that the Fairview board of directors was not interested. No response was received from either Dreyer Farms or Sunrise, she said.

A last attempt to contact all of the properties that had been previously considered was made in December 2007. "We don't always get a response when people aren't interested," DiNardo said.

Responding to DiNardo's testimony, Norman Albert, an attorney for Union County, argued that the applicant's search had not been as exhaustive as she claimed because at no point had a request for diversion of Green Acres space been made by the phone companies.

Meese, the applicant's attorney, objected to that line of questioning and said that "Green Acres is a red herring" that had no bearing on the application.

Albert countered by saying that there is a process in place for such circumstances and the process had not been completed. "They haven't asked" about adjusting the Green Acres designation, he said.

Albert went on to say that the Sunrise facility is less than 200 feet from the proposed site, which means the property owners there would have been notified of the current application. "You think they would have taken the letter they received from you in December, after they already know about this plan, seriously?" he asked.

DiNardo also faced questioning from John Schmidt, an attorney with the firm of Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper, which has been retained to represent about 40 residents in the area.

Schmidt asked DiNardo if she had ever been involved in any application to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for Green Acres diversion. She responded that she had previously been involved in one such request, which was not successful.

The hearing will continue on May 5, when the applicant is slated to introduce testimony from a real estate appraiser, a radiofrequency engineer and a planner.

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