EDITORIAL: What looms above us?

LOOK, EARTHLINGS! We… have… made… you… a… tree! That kind of low-budget sci-fi movie dialog comes to mind every time I drive by those lame attempts to camouflage cell phone towers as evergreens. Aliens are plotting to conquer planet Earth with fake shrubbery.

We earthlings have done a pretty good job of surrendering our brains and our wallets to the cell phone industry without extraterrestrial help, and with some exceptions the industry seldom has to hide its towers anymore, because people crave the service. Towers reassure us that wherever they are we can talk and text as much as we can afford.

Some folks still insist that the endless advance of mobile communications should be balanced against quaint notions like quality of life and even public health and safety. These are arguments are almost as old as the cell phone industry, and they recently resurfaced in Ancram, where cell service is spotty at best and mostly unavailable.

A private company called Mariner Tower 2 has proposed a new tower on a private lot in Ancram along its boundary with the Town of Gallatin. The antennas on that tower would bring service to parts of Ancram and Ancramdale where no connection exists now. But the tower site does not meet the current zoning standard for setbacks from adjacent properties, so the company needs a variance from the town allowing it to build the tower closer to the neighbors than the law permits.

Opponents argue that Ancram’s zoning law was modified recently to reduce the tower setback distance, making it easier to erect a tower, but the Mariner proposal can’t even comply with this new, less restrictive requirement. They say the tower will lower the value of their property, and some worry that the signals could harm their health.

Time now for some disclosure: years ago I tried to make a TV documentary called “Warning: Television can be hazardous to your health.” It focused on TV broadcast signals, which are similar to the non-ionizing radiation transmitted and received by the cellular radio service, also known as cell phones.

Oddly, no one in the TV industry showed much interest in my idea. But I did spend time researching what was then known about this type of radiation, and while I still believe these transmissions could pose a small degree of health risk, I now use a cell phone daily. I also know for certain that the greatest cell phone threat comes from selfish jerks who believe they can drive safely while talking on the phone and from the morons who text while they’re behind the wheel of a vehicle.

As for property values, towers undoubtedly lower some and improve others. The antennas have to poke above the tree line to work effectively, and even if you decorate a “camouflaged” tower with lights and a star on top no one will mistake it for a Christmas tree. But somebody who has a home business or who worries about contacting emergency services when weather once again takes down the phone lines might find a nearby tower substantially enhances the value of his or her home.

So that leaves the question of how far the town should bend its laws to accommodate a private company, in this case, Mariner. And here the town is at a disadvantage. Although one resident has worked diligently for years to persuade major cell phone service providers to cover Ancram and neighboring towns, the town lacks its own professional study of which properties meet the needs of current cellular radio technology.

Mariner has identified one of them, but that lot isn’t big enough, and it would set an unfortunate precedent for the town to toss aside its revised zoning of tower setbacks without first determining whether viable alternatives exist. Ancram could gather unbiased information without resorting to fortune tellers or obtaining a Top Secret clearance from Homeland Security. All it takes is a qualified engineering firm and money. It won’t be cheap, but neither will the cost to taxpayers if the town lacks data to back up its tower decisions in court.

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