Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Westfield Leader 12/18/2008

Residents Made Difference In Denial of Cell Tower
By Christina M. Hinke

CRANFORD — The earnest voice of residents weighed on the township zoning board of adjustment’s unanimous, Monday, December 8, decision to reject a 120 foot cell tower monopole proposed in a residential neighborhood at the Cranford Swim Club.

The 10-hearing heated debate between the applicant, SMSA Limited Partnership, consisting of Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile, and a team of Westfield and Cranford residents represented by their attorney John Schmidt, had heard testimony by the applicant’s radiofrequency expert Glenn Pierson citing a gap in coverage.

Board member Christopher Drew told The Westfield Leader that after hearing testimony by residents at the November meeting that cited their own test of cell phone service in the “gap” that showed they could make calls inside buildings and outside without a problem that, “I think you have to trust the people on the ground. Who better to judge than the folks who are affected by it?” “Based on testimony I felt it was the right thing to do,” he said. The application sought seven variances, including use, height and setback. “It was way too much all the way around. A bad place, a bad project and, quite frankly, I’m very happy for the residents.”

Jo Ann Neylan told The Leader she and Vicki Kimmins attended the meetings to support the Westfield residents as second ward representatives of the Westfield Town Council. “We’re happy that the residents were satisfied [by the board’s decision to deny the application]. We just hope that the technology in the future is as such that they don’t have to have so many cell towers around,” Ms. Neylan said. Ms. Kimmins said the zoning board “really listened to the residents. How it affected them personally — it really counted... All those voices together really made a difference,” she said.

“I think the decision was a correct one. Too close to a residential area and too close to a park.” Robert Hellenbrecht, chairman of the Cranford board, said, “My belief was that there was not a significant gap in service and weighed against the detriment, we as a board felt compelled to deny it.”

Mr. Schmidt, in his closing remarks, said, “The evidence in this case says the application should be denied.” He also said when his radiofrequency expert requested to review the data that was relied upon for Mr. Pierson’s evidence of a gap of coverage that “there was none.” The applicant’s attorney, Gregory Meese, said drive test data showing his applicant having a significant gap in coverage along Kenilworth Boulevard and Springfield Avenue is updated regularly and is why the old data was erased and he said the data didn’t change.

Norman Albert, a representative for the County of Union and a Cranford resident, asked the board to consider its “common sense” when weighing the detriment a cell tower would have on property values, siding that a tower would decrease the value of a home.

John Schuvart, a Westfield resident who, along with his wife Jenny and son Michael, was among a group of some 90 people who hired Mr. Schmidt, said the tower “would have cost the neighborhood property value loss… This is almost everybody’s single investment in their lives.” “If you want to be in the cell phone business, you got to pay the price. But don’t lean on us,” Mr. Schuvart said. He told The Leader that residents spent about $40,000 to $50,000 to battle the case. “It’s so sad that things are handled this way, that it puts so much stress on people, the residents. We have lost some of our lives, our health. Every night my last thoughts were ‘how the heck are we going to fight this cell tower?’ Isn’t that a shame?” said Mr. Shuvart, who has owned his home for over 40 years. “We pay our taxes every quarter, we’ve been good citizens, we raised our children here. To be confronted with this in this time in your life is so sad. Our neighbors are mostly older. It’s tough. It’s disrupting our lives. It’s going to take us a while to get over it. My wife says she doesn’t think she’ll ever get over it. There is so much they could have done to make it easier.”

Frank Krause, a Cranford resident, said the decision to deny the application “certainly was saving the value of the land” for the residential lots in Westfield and Cranford surrounding the proposed site, the swim club property and the Union County Green Acres parkland.

Cranford resident Marjorie Meise told the board “before I left today my daughter, a college student, said to me ‘you go mom, you bring forth your voice…, but it’s not going to change a thing.’” “I said…‘People’s voices count…’” In a final statement by Mr. Drew at last Monday’s hearing, he said to Ms. Meise, “Please tell her and all of her friends that they can always make a difference and that her mom absolutely made a difference today.”

“We’ve (the board) never had the participation and we’ve never had the strong opinion of so many residents. I take that to heart and I take that serious,” board member Ronald Marotta said.

“I felt this was an unfair application for the residents to have this tower behind their homes. No one else in the state and the country has experienced this…these people have been asked an unusual burden,” board member Carolyn Youngs said. “I think it’s really unrealistic to have these cell towers within a couple miles of each other.”

Mr. Meese did not return phone calls inquiring about his client’s decision to appeal the board’s decision.