Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cranford Chronicle 08/29/2008

Objectors to Cranford Cell Tower Bring in Attorney
by Leslie Murray
Friday August 29, 2008

CRANFORD - The contentious application to build a monopole cell tower at the Cranford Swimming Club (CSC) continued this week as the attorney for a group of objecting residents presented testimony from a planner and a radio frequency engineer.

The August 25th meeting marked the seventh time the application by a cooperative of cellular providers, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and Omnipoint, a branch of T-Mobile, has been heard by the Board of Adjustment. The application calls for a 120 foot monopole tower on the rear of the swim club property at the border of Cranford and Westfield. At least one more meeting will be required before a decision on the application is rendered.

The tower was initially proposed at 130 feet but was reduced when Sprint Mobile dropped out of the application. Greg Meese, attorney for the applicant, and experts have maintained the carriers have a gap in coverage and need the tower to meet service demands.

Residents in both towns have objected, saying the tower will negatively impact their property values and could be a health risk. A group of objectors have hired attorney John Schmidt of Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper to represent their concerns.

The application has also drawn objections from Union County and the state, with county attorney Norman Albert saying the tower would negatively impact the neighboring Lenape Park. In a letter to the Cranford Zoning Board, written last year, The New Jersey Historic Preservation Office asserted the Rahway River Parkway Historic District, which was formally identified by the National Register of Historic Places in September 2002, would be damaged if the tower was erected.

This week Schmidt presented testimony from planner Peter Steck and engineer Ronald Graiff that conflicted with the initial testimony given when the applicant gave concluding testimony from expert witnesses.

Speaking about the variances that had been requested in the application, which include exceeding the maximum height for a tower, less than the required set back from a residential zone, and less than the required front yard and side yard setbacks, Steck said the applicant had used the standard setbacks for areas that allow cell towers as a permitted use. However, because the area is an R-1 residential zone and the tower use is not permitted, Steck called it "improper to apply the standards (for a tower in) a non-residential area." What's more, he said the board could demand more stringent set backs at the site if they deemed it necessary.

Steck also objected to the testimony by William Masters, Jr., planner for the applicant, which supported the tower because it offered a benefit to the public at large.

"In my opinion, this is not an inherently beneficial use," Steck told the board. He added that he believed the neighboring county park land was "just as sensitive as a residential area and possibly more sensitive", a direct contradiction to Masters' comment that fewer residents would be impacted because the tower was near the park. "It will, in my opinion, dramatically affect the quality of that recreational area," Steck said of the tower's impact on Lenape Park.

Questioned by Meese about other suitable sites for such a tower, Steck said it was not his task to find alternate sites and while he did agree with Meese's assertion that the surrounding plots were too small to accommodate a cell tower "in (his) opinion size is not the only issue."

Answering a question from board chairman Robert Hellenbrecht regarding the total impact of the tower, Steck said that noise and other traffic at the site currently are seasonal and the noise of children at both the park and the swim club are not generally considered offensive, but "a cell tower is foreign" to the area.

When Steck concluded his testimony, the audience of nearly 50 people broke into a round of applause. The group also lauded the testimony by Graiff.

As Graiff testified about the two issues that impact wireless service - coverage "the ability of a system ... to provide a receivable signal" and capacity "the system's (ability) to handle what's delivered to it" - and began to speak on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules regarding cellular communications, Meese objected.

Graiff replied that though he wasn't an attorney he had been on the FCC rule-drafting committee and would not offer an interpretation of the rules, but would only read them to the board. Board attorney David Weeks said the testimony was admissible.

As he testified, Graiff said it was unclear if the application was about coverage or capacity. What's more he objected to the testimony by the applicant's radio frequency engineer Glen Pierson that the current cell sites in the area would reach maximum capacity by 2010.

"Forgive me, but it's nearly impossible to design anything, from a cellular network to a power grid ... to the maximum capacity," Graiff said. "I'm not questioning the grid design. All I'm questioning if that someone can make the bold statement ... that this cell site will run out a capacity by 2010," he said.

Calling the potential tower at CSC "poor cell site placement", Graiff said that using the information provided by the applicant, he saw a 62 percent duplication in coverage for T-Mobile, a 52 percent duplication of coverage for AT&T, and nearly a 50 percent duplication in coverage for Verizon.

When the application continues on October 6, Meese will cross examine Graiff and another expert witness is expected to testify before the public is allowed to comment on the application.