Friday, November 28, 2008

The Westfield Leader 11/27/2008

Westfield, Cranford Residents Voice Resounding ‘No’ to Cell Tower

CRANFORD — Residents of Westfield and Cranford on Monday had their first chance to make comments to the Cranford planning board regarding the application for a 120-foot cell tower proposed for placement at the Cranford Swimming Club on County Park Drive, which borders on Westfield. In this yearlong battle, Westfield and Cranford homeowners who live adjacent to or near the swim club have opposed the application to erect a cell phone tower.

The applicant, SMSA Limited Partnership, composed of Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, seeks use, height and setback variances to place the monopole and an equipment shelter in a residential zone at the Cranford Swimming Club.

Austin Habib of Manitou Circle in Westfield said to the board, “you have the right to disapprove” the application based on the interests of the community, adding that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) cannot force the municipality to approve it. He voiced concerns of the possible health risks of frequencies the tower would emit, noting how government in the past had said certain materials, such as mercury, were harmless, only to learn later that they were harmful to humans. He also said research he found on the Internet stated that monopoles can reduce a home’s value by up to 50 percent.

Mark O’Neil of 56 Manitou Circle said, “for me, it began with the presumption that it is not allowed.” He said there is “sufficient reason” to not approve the application. He called the board’s imminent decision a “balancing test” of legality and the community perspective. He said a realtor said to him recently that a couple heard about the cell tower case and dropped out of looking at a home in the area. “It’s perception. It affects the value of everyone’s house.” Mr. O’Neil said, “It’s not a constitutional issue,” adding, “we have land lines for phones, cable lines for phones. Certainly cell phone service doesn’t rise to the level of need of a water line or electrical line.” “Look at how many people are against this application. The majority should weigh on your minds,” he said. He called the tower an “eyesore.” Mr. O’Neil said if the cell tower was approved, the swim club would be changing its use to a commercial property by renting its space and profiting off of the lease. “At the end of the day, it is fundamentally unfair,” he said.

Paul Fuller of Cranford reiterated Mr. O’Neil’s statement, saying this application is not a variance but a rezoning issue. “We are looking to you guys to help us stop this,” he said. “It’s a bottom line majority issue...You haven’t shown it’s beneficial to the neighborhood.”

Myron Kesselhaut of 44 Manitou Circle lives the closest to the proposed location of the tower and said he bought his home 40 years ago because he had a “pristine property.” He said if the tower goes up it would be 14 feet from his yard where his grandchildren play and would impinge on his view. “I want my grandchildren to play with no problems,” he said. “I want to enjoy my final days there.”

Charles Rauch of 20 Manitou Circle cited visual and noise pollution and lowered property values as the impact to the neighborhood surrounding the tower site. The rapid improvements in technology and how technological devices have been made smaller for the same or more use are proven, he said, adding that the same could happen to how cell phone service is provided.

Frank Krause of Cranford said one variance was “overlooked,” citing the tower site is 15 feet from county parklands, where 50 feet is required.

Andrea Bergman of 40 Nomahegan Court in Cranford said the board should vote no, “if you on the board truly represent the residents of Cranford and not the big money interest.”

“Please say no. It’s the right thing to do,” said Mary Valanzano of
Nomahegan Court.

Prior to resident comments, Michael Shuvart, a resident of Manatoa Circle in Westfield, was recalled to the stand. He testified about advertisements he saw for the three cell phone carriers and how each of their websites has a user option to type in an address to see the result of coverage in the area. He said all three carriers showed sufficient coverage in the proposed cell site location.

The applicant’s attorney, Gregory Meese, stated that footnotes on the ads said maps produced may include no service areas, limited or no coverage areas and does not guarantee service, coverage and availability.

John Schmidt, the attorney representing the residents opposed to the application, said the maps stated that they showed the strongest coverage numbers resulting in good or better coverage.

Mr. Schmidt then called four residents to testify on behalf on their own call test, of which they made a handful of calls from various places in the area in question to research the reliability of the cell phone service. Mr. Meese objected to each person’s testimony saying it is not relevant and does not stand up in court.

All but one phone call was noted as going through and not being dropped. Later, Glenn Pierson, a radio frequency expert for the applicant, was called to redirect comments on this data. He said of 16 of the calls he looked at, all but three were in the existing coverage area on the Verizon map that showed good coverage.

Norman Albert, an attorney representing the County of Union, called Victor Vinagra of Harbor Consultants as a planning expert to testify on the effect the tower has on the county parkland at Lenape Park. Mr. Vinagra presented a PowerPoint display of photographs he took of the park and the views from the tower site into the yards of the neighboring homes, and a trail system map.

He said the view from the homes would see the base of the tower and 10 feet above it. The trail connects Echo Lake Park with Nomahegan Park and extends behind the swim club. It is part of the Union County Greenway, which is part of the New Jersey Greenway. Mr. Vinagra said the county is commissioning to expand the greenway. The tower affects the long range planning the county has for its park system, he said. The visual effects the tower would have from the greenway would have a “negative impact on the county park system,” he said.

This sentiment was shared by the Rahway River Parkway Historic District in a letter, he said. He said the tree buffer was not good year-round and the height of the tower extends above the tree line, which he said is about 70 to 80 feet. He said the applicant has failed to make a case to approve the tower placement and it does no meet the zone plan. “Not being able to negotiate a deal with other property owners is not a reason to grant the application,” Mr. Vinagra told the board. He said just because Lenape Park cannot be developed for residential use does not mean it cannot be developed for park activities. He said the fact that the tower’s proposed site abuts 270 acres of open space “pushes the impact” a monopole would have on the area and “does not negate the impact.”

The next board meeting on the cell tower will be held Monday, December 8, at 8:15 p.m.