Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Westfield Leader 3/13/2008

Cranford Swim Club Cell Tower Hearing Moves On

Specially Written for The Westfield Leader

CRANFORD — The battle over the placement of a cell tower in a residential neighborhood took a step forward at Monday’s Cranford zoning board meeting. Lawyers for both sides presented arguments on the selection process of the Cranford Swim Club as the site for Verizon Inc.’s cell tower.

Greg Meese, an attorney from the Woodcliff Lake law firm Price, Meese, Shulman and D’Armino, represents Verizon Inc., which seeks to install a 130-foot-tall cellular tower and equipment shed on the grounds of the Cranford Swim Club.

Mr. Meese presented Claire Dinardo as an expert witness for Verizon to testify on the need to place the tower on the swim club property. Ms. Dinardo is the president of Arionda real estate consultants out of Haddonfield. She was hired by Verizon as a “site acquisition expert.” According to testimony from Ms. Dinardo, the search for a property to install the cell tower began in 2003 when “radio frequency engineers” identified a “gap” in service for wireless customers in the area.

Ms. Dinardo testified that Verizon targeted an area in Cranford that included the Union County College Cranford campus, Nomahegan Park, Dreyer’s Farm, all in Cranford, and Fairview Cemetery and the Sunrise Assisted Living facility in Westfield, as well as the swim club.

According to Mr. Dinardo, the “search area” identified by the radio engineers consists mostly of one-family homes that do not meet the requirements of the zoning laws to host cell towers. The properties targeted by Verizon “made the spirit of the law.”

“I started with Union County College. That was the first choice for the site,” Ms. Dinardo said. According to testimony, letters were sent to the president’s office of Union County College seeking to place the tower on the campus. Officials from Verizon met with representatives from the college, however, Ms. Dinardo said that the college “was not interested.”

According to Ms. Dinardo, Verizon got the same response from Fairview Cemetery, Sunrise Senior Home and Dreyer’s Farm. The swim club was the only site that agreed to the placement of the tower, she said.

Norman Albert, the deputy Union County counsel, spoke in opposition to Verizon’s application to install the cell tower on the swim club property. Mr. Albert called effectiveness of the letters sent out to property owners by Ms. Dinardo.

According to testimony, Ms. Dinardo’s company sent letters of interest to the property owners in 2003 and began discussions with the college, the cemetery and the swim club.

The college was the first choice for the tower, but college officials declined the offer on three occasions, Ms. Dinardo said. The cemetery also considered Verizon’s offer but declined, she said. Sunrise Assisted Living and Dreyer’s Farm never responded to Verizon’s letter, she said. Ms. Dinardo stated that Verizon did not pursue placing the tower in Nomahegan Park based on the restrictions imposed by the state’s Green Acres open space program.

“We send a certified letter to the property owner or the highest ranking official. It is up to them to respond to the letters,” Ms. Dinardo said. “We are not going to harass people and knock on doors.”

Mr. Albert focused his argument on the letters that were sent out by Dinardo’s company. Ms. Dinardo testified that five letters were sent to the college, three to Union County regarding Nomahegan Park, two to the cemetery and one to the senior home.

Mr. Albert argued that Verizon did not make a satisfactory attempt to find an alternative location for the tower that would be less intrusive as the swim club property. “The county is here to object to the site for the tower based on the negative impact on local residents as well as the proximity to historic lands,” Mr. Albert said.

Mr. Albert questioned Ms. Dinardo on the process to find a site for the tower and the use of the letters. “Did you ever go to a site to discuss a proposal?” Mr. Albert asked. “We have to be careful on how many letters we send. We do not want to border on becoming telemarketers,” Ms. Dinardo said. “The property owners have no legal responsibility to talk to us. Once they say ‘no,’ we leave it at that.”

According to Mr. Albert, Verizon did not seek all the options to find an alternative site before settling on the swim club. “What would happen if the county said it was interested?” Mr. Albert asked. “What would happen if the county said ‘come with us to apply for a diversion from the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection)?’ We don’t know because Verizon never applied.”

Another meeting on the application to place a cell tower on the Cranford Swim Club property is scheduled for Monday, May 5.