Most of the anticipated fireworks over construction of a cell tower ticketed for the Manhanset Firehouse on Cobbetts Lane to improve fire department communications and cell phone service in the area are on hold awaiting a public hearing before the Town Board.
But a preview of what’s to come was on display at the July 26 Zoning Board of Appeals hearing, with the ZBA chairman keeping a narrow focus on whether a requested lot line variance would be granted to accommodate support equipment for the tower.
The required setback for all equipment would be 30 feet from the rear yard line, but the proposed plan calls for equipment to be 26 feet from that line.
For attorney Frank Isler of Smith, Finklelstein, Lundberg, Isler & Yakaboski of Riverhead, the ZBA is the wrong venue for the application because Shelter Island’s Town Code prohibits exceptions to lot line requirements on what he sees as a new issue of non-compliance on an already existing non-compliant site.
The firehouse itself is noncompliant because it is a commercial structure in a residential area, Mr. Isler said. There is no communications equipment at the firehouse and adding a tower would result in an additional use, he said.
Mr. Isler represents David Harms, whose property is immediately behind the firehouse.
Mr. Harms won agreement from the ZBA to keep the hearing open for further testimony at the August 23 meeting when he intends to bring his own cell tower consultant to the meeting .
ZBA Chairman Doug Matz was adamant that the ZBA’s role was only to consider the setback request. Any testimony about the tower itself — from aesthetics to safety, noise or other concerns — would be up to the Town Board, which has the final word on whether or not the tower is approved.
For that reason, Town Attorney Laury Dowd encouraged Mr. Harms to hold off bringing his attorney to the August 23 meeting, saying that should await a future hearing before the Town Board.
Speaking directly to the requested area variance, Mr. Harms said if the application is approved, he would want the ZBA to impose a requirement of a buffer for noise emanating from a generator at the firehouse site and other sounds he said would result from the antennae and related equipment.
Other residents voiced concern at the meeting about the aesthetics of putting a tower at the firehouse, but those were dismissed by Mr. Matz, again responding that the hearing was only about the requested area variance, not the tower itself.
Resident Else Coyle suggested that technology is constantly changing and today’s needs could well be supplanted in a short time by other means of communications not requiring a tower.
Ms. Coyle added that if a tower is needed, it could just as well be placed at the Gardiner’s Bay Country Club where elevations would be similar to those at the firehouse.
Attorney John Coughlin of Huntington’s Ré, Nielsen, Huber & Coughlin brought a series of speakers to argue on behalf of Deer Park’s Elite Towers— slated to construct the tower — Verizon and the Shelter Island Fire Commissioners that a tower is needed at the site to improve critical communications for the Fire Department.
Verizon appears to be the only cell phone carrier currently planning an antenna at the tower and the fire department would be allowed its own antenna without cost.
Greg Nawrotzki, director of telecommunications for Parsippany, New Jersey-based Dewberry Engineers, oversaw the work of determining where a new tower would be located to ensure clear signals. He said the structure for the support equipment was placed behind the firehouse so that it would be less visible from the roadway.
John Breslin of Breslin Appraisal Co. of Huntington said there would be no adverse impact on property values. In many communities, Mr. Breskin added, property values go up in areas where residents are assured emergency communications is a priority.
Environmental consultant for VHB of Hauppauge, John Ellsworth, said sounds from a generator needed at the site and other equipment would all be within the town code relating to noise levels.
Fire Commission Chairman Larry Lechmanski also spoke at the meeting. Mr. Lechmanski has been shepherding the effort to improve communications and convert the department’s low band radios to a high band frequency as required by 2020 — the deadline when dispatchers from the Southold Police Department and Suffolk County will have completed their own conversions.
Southold is the main dispatcher for Shelter Island with the county providing backup dispatching services.
The high band service requires sending signals from the dispatchers to the Center Firehouse and pagers linked to it, and then bounce those signals off a repeater at the Manhanset Firehouse to ensure emergency responders can communicate with one another without interruption. High band signals don’t carry through trees, mounds of dirt, buildings, rocks and other impediments to communication, Mr. Lechmanski said, so a tower is essential.
The proposed deal is that Elite Towers would pay the fire district $100,000 for constructing the tower, and the tower company and the district would split 50-50 all revenues cellphone carriers pay to put their antennae on a new tower. Without that money, the fire commissioners would be forced to ask taxpayers to bear the burden of the new radio equipment, Mr. Lechmanski said.
Manufacturers are getting away from producing low band equipment for emergency responders, said Andrew Hintze of Integrated Wireless, the consulting service the local fire district uses. He argued that the high frequency signals are the only answer to being able to blanket the entire Island, including the northeast shore areas of Hay Beach and the Rams.
The hearing remains open for further discussion at the August 23 ZBA meeting at Town Hall.