Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Record Press 06/30/2008

Even at 120 Feet, Fight Continues Over Cell Tower
Monday, June 30, 2008

CRANFORD - Ten feet shorter, but still a whole heap of trouble: that's the tale of the proposed cell tower at the Cranford Swimming Club.

As the Zoning Board of Adjustment held the latest in a series of hearings about the controversial tower Monday night, a group of about 60 neighbors again crowded council chambers to object to what they see as a threat to their home values and their quality of life.

The consortium of wireless phone companies that hopes to use the tower has lost one member, announced Greg Meese, attorney for the applicant. Sprint Mobile has dropped out, leaving behind Verizon Wireless, AT& T and Omnipoint, a branch of T-Mobile. As a result, the tower would have to be only 120 feet, not the 130 originally proposed. (Meese also noted that Sprint's decision was not based on the vocal opposition to the plan -- the company has taken similar steps on applications around the state, he said.)

While the wireless carriers have maintained that they need the tower to meet current and future service demands, residents in Cranford and Westfield have banded together in opposition and hired attorney John Schmidt of Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper to represent their concerns. Union County has also objected to the application, saying the tower would be detrimental to the Rahway River Parkway, with attorney Norman Albert representing the county at the hearings.

At Monday's session, Meese attempted to introduce additional testimony from radio frequency engineer Glen Pierson. He presented raw data that had been requested in March by Schmidt, the residents' attorney.

But Schmidt quickly questioned the timing of the presentation, saying that he had been "blind-sided unfairly." Surmising that the data would have been ready for a cancelled meeting in May, Schmidt said he could not be expected to review the thick pile of material and question Pierson when he received the information just as the engineer began his testimony. At the request of board Chairman Robert Hellenbrecht, Meese agreed to have Pierson available for testimony at the next hearing.

After Pierson stepped down, the bulk of the session was given over to a real estate appraisal. John Gillooly of Integra Realty Resources presented a study that compared the sales of homes in proximity to a monopole cell tower both before and after the tower was constructed.

Explaining that he could not study the area in question because a cell tower does not currently exist there, Gillooly used as a point of comparison Brown Avenue in Springfield, a neighborhood where a cell tower was built in 2004 and that he called "roughly similar in its construction and design" to the area around County Park Drive, where the swim club is located.

In his review, Gillooly said, he found that the value of homes with a direct view of the tower and those without such a view appreciated at nearly the same rate.

Questioning the study, board member Jeffery Pistol gained a round of applause when he asked if Gillooly had taken into account buyers who might avoid an area altogether specifically because of a cell tower.

"Mountain Avenue in Springfield is different than the Boulevard in Cranford because it's a more commercial area," Pistol added.

"Yes, it's not identical to the subject area, but it's similar," Gillooly responded.

Board member Carolyn Youngs also questioned the comparison as it related to the distance between the cell tower and surrounding homes. Quoting the report, she said the closest homes in Springfield were about 600 feet from the tower there -- more than twice the distance from the proposed tower to some homes in Cranford and Westfield. She also questioned if the appreciation rate was the result of market demands that existed regardless of the tower's presence.

"My study shows there's not a big difference," Gillooly said. "If the cell tower had an impact, you would see it in the sale prices."

Given a chance to cross-examine Gillooly, Schmidt asked whether the appreciation rates were really that similar -- according to the study, homes with a direct view of the tower appreciated in value by 9.6 percent, while those without a view grew in value by 13 percent.

Gillooly interjected that the two appreciation rates "are relatively close in appraisal methodology" and he would be likely to round both figures to 10 percent.

Westfield resident Austin Habib discounted the report entirely, saying that "the neighborhoods are not compatible."

Cranford resident Paul Fuller advanced the same line of argument, asking how far the study area in Springfield was from Route 22. When Gillooly said he was uncertain, a member of the audience interjected, saying the site was just two-tenths of mile from the highway. Continuing, Fuller said the two locations - one near a highway in Springfield, the other in a "basically rural" section of Cranford and Westfield - were not comparable.

After Gillooly's comments, the board heard limited testimony from planner William Masters Jr. about the changes to the application caused by the Sprint's withdrawal. Masters will resume his testimony at the next hearing, on July 14. The board also has the application scheduled for hearings on Aug. 11 and 25.

After the applicant concludes its case, Schmidt and Albert will present their own expert witnesses, and the public will also have a chance to comment before the board makes a decision.

Leslie Murray is a staff writer for NJN Publishing. She can be reached at (732) 396-4205 or lmurray@njnpublishing.com.