Cell service plan divides neighbors

ANCRAM–A proposal to build a 150-foot-tall cell tower near the Gallatin town line drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100, December 1. Many in the crowd came to tell the Ancram Planning Board that a tower in that location is a bad idea.

The tower, one in a network of yet-to-be built or recently constructed masts, is proposed by Mariner Tower II, LLC, a co-applicant with AT&T. The tower would be sited at 2259 State Route 82, property owned by Stephen Tucker and Heidi Baldwin, who are also listed as co-applicants.

The Tucker/Baldwin parcel is 9.7 acres, long and narrow, 2,100 feet long by 200 feet wide. The proposed site is about 1,600 feet from the property’s southern boundary but only 50 feet from the western boundary. The applicant has asked the Planning Board for a waiver from the western setback requirement of 150 feet. Ancram’s local law on telecommunications towers requires a setback from any structure or property line a distance at least equal to the height of the tower.

Chris Ciolfi, Mariner Tower’s representative, said that Mariner would be willing to move the tower site 200 feet south of its current proposed location to reduce the number of trees that have to be removed and lessen the visual impact of the tower on the nearest house, about 430 feet away. While the move will put the tower more toward the middle of the property, it would trigger the need for two waivers instead of one, putting the tower only 100 feet from both the east and west boundaries. The western property line of the Tucker/Baldwin parcel is also the Gallatin town line.

Mr. Ciolfi said he had negotiated with 24 area property owners before signing a lease for the Tucker/Baldwin property.

First to speak during the public hearing was Ancram resident Bob Roth who has spent the last five and a half years working to bring cell phone coverage to the area. Among the points Mr. Roth made were that it took the intervention of a congresswoman and state senator to persuade AT&T to come to the area, “they didn’t just drop in. No other company came willingly; please don’t lose them.”

Identifying himself as president of the Ancram Fire Company, Mr. Roth called the fire company the finest in the county and spoke about the value of wireless communications to firefighters and the rescue squad in protecting residents in case of emergency.

But Gallatin Supervisor-elect Tom Garrick said Ancram and Gallatin are neighbors who share a fire company and highway equipment. “Don’t dump on Gallatin,” he told the Planning Board, adding that granting setback waivers would be “trashing the zoning law to get a cell tower.”

Robert Downie and his partner, Barbara Potter, own land in Gallatin 50 feet away from the proposed tower. Mr. Downie presented photos and diagrams to illustrate the imposing nature of the tower and said that the tower is really only 35 feet from his property line because the base of the tower is 15-feet wide. He called the cell tower “a violation of privacy” and noted that Ancram’s previous cell tower law called for a 750-foot setback, but was changed in January to require just the height of the structure. The law was revised to reflect the town’s new Comprehensive Plan, which aims to be more cell tower-friendly. Mr. Downie also noted that the proposed cell tower will not improve coverage to either Ancramdale or Boston Corners, a point that Mr. Ciolfi did not dispute.

Gallatin Supervisor Lynda Scheer told the board, “We all want to have cell phone service, but we can’t have it on the backs of other towns and neighbors.” Acknowledging “the safety issue,” Ms. Scheer said, “other sites need to be looked at.”

Gail Keller, whose house is the closest to the cell tower site, said the tower will loom “right over top of my house” from 400 feet away.

She noted that Gallatin’s zoning law calls for a 300-foot setback from the nearest property line and a 500-foot setback from the nearest structure. Ms. Keller, who searched for a house for three years before buying the one where she now lives, contacted local realtors about what price impact having the cell tower in such close proximity will have on her property. She was told that not only would her property be harder to sell but that her property value will be diminished by 30%. She noted that with the cell tower there she doesn’t know if she would want to live there anymore, but she probably would not be able to sell it.

Ms. Potter, who said she has lived in Gallatin for 35 years, is a retired bus driver who invested her life savings in the property, which she and Mr. Downie hope to build a house on someday. She said they have worked on trails around the property and called the woodlands there a “pristine forest. I would never have considered buying the lot if a cell tower had been there.” Ms. Potter said the threat of having the cell tower built next door has put her and Mr. Downie under an “unimaginable amount of stress” and said that the only positive aspect of the whole ordeal has been that they have both lost weight.

She said she has offered each of her children a place to build on the land and that is all now in jeopardy. “Our dream, which is the American Dream, will not be possible if you grant this variance,” she told the board.

Betty Walsh, who owns property near the site, said the tower is not in keeping with the residential area and referred to a study that she said establishes a link between cancer and those who live near cell towers.

Bonnie Hundt, who said she was one of the crafters of the new cell tower law, said the proposed location is not the place for a cell tower and the board has no reason to grant a waiver if the law is not complied with. “To grant a waiver will put the town in a bad situation and would be an abuse of the waiver law,” she said.

When questioned early on in the meeting about whether the board could waive a requirement in the law, Planning Board Chair Colleen Lutz said the board’s attorney told her, “Yes, provided the board has very convincing clear evidence on which to waive it.”

Planning Board member Jamie Purinton said she would vote “no way” with the tower so close, saying she would suffer sleepless nights worrying about cell tower health effects. She said the tower should meet setback requirements and sites where that is possible do exist.

Anna Morey, who has relatives in the fire company, said she would put the cell tower on her own property “in a heartbeat.”  She said her son-in-law is a quadriplegic and he relies on the cell phone to communicate.

Attorney Carl Whitbeck, who represents property owners in the vicinity of the cell tower site, said Ancram is full of farmland and he is sure some farmer would love to have the tower in the middle of his farm for a monthly lease income. He suggested Winchell Mountain, perhaps the highest elevation in town, would be an appropriate place without impact to anyone. Mr. Whitbeck also addressed procedures, endangered species, noise, impact letters from realtors, underground versus above-ground power lines and the time frame in which the board must make a decision once the public hearing is closed.

Names of property owners who are interested in having a cell tower were given to the board.

Planning Board member John Ingram noted that the board must do its due diligence and adhere to procedure before a decision is made.

The public hearing will continue at the next Planning Board meeting January 5.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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