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Cell tower meeting a matter of size

REPORTER FILE PHOTO The Manhanset firehouse is the site of a proposed cell and emergency communications tower.
The Manhanset firehouse is the site of a proposed cell and emergency communications tower.

The proposal by the Board of Fire Commissioners to construct a 120-foot cell phone and emergency services communications tower at the Manhanset firehouse on Cobbetts Lane had a public hearing before the Town Board on June 15.

At a packed Town Hall meeting room, the discussion was lengthy, with the hearing stretching to more than three and a half hours. No decision was made to approve or deny the application and the subject was left open for more comments.

Later in the meeting there was a public hearing on a separate proposal for another 120-foot communications tower behind the Center firehouse, solely for first responders. The hearing was without controversy and lasted a matter of minutes in a nearly empty meeting room.

At Tuesday’s work session, the board was in agreement that the Center firehouse tower should be given approval.

Fire Commissioner Larry Lechmanski has spearheaded the effort to improve communications for the department by converting the department’s low band radios to a high band frequency, as required by federal regulations. In 2020, dispatchers from the Southold Police Department and Suffolk County will have completed their own conversions and 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 has said, so a tower is essential.

The addition of a new tower, the Fire District says, would also greatly improve cell phone service in Hay Beach and Ram Island.

Hay Beach Association President Bob Fredericks presented the board with an email survey conducted by the association that found that out of 49 Hay Beach respondents, 84 percent were in favor of the proposed tower, 14 percent were opposed and 2 percent had no response; out of 41 Ram Island respondents, 66 percent were in favor, 12 percent were opposed and 22 percent had no response.

Improved cell phone service, Mr. Lechmanski said at the public hearing, can be a lifesaver for first responders and Fire Chief Anthony Reiter agreed. At times, in the midst of a blaze, the use of cell phones to communicate “can be the only way out for our guys,” Mr. Lechmanski said.

Speaking about the necessity of responding quickly, efficiently and safely to emergency calls, Chief Reiter asked the board and the community to consider “the people who are running into your house while you’re running out of it.”

The proposal calls for the tower to be 120 feet high constructed behind the firehouse on Cobbetts Lane, with a propane-powered emergency back-up generator built at ground level and other equipment, including cooling apparatus, which will be enclosed in an “equipment cabinet.”

The tower’s height will accommodate six canisters within the structure that cell phone service providers can use to install equipment and an antenna at the top for the fire department’s communications.

At present there is one cell phone service provider, Verizon, on board to install equipment.

The advantages to the fire district of a tower that size, are, first, the essential need for better communication, and:
• The district would receive a $100,000 initial payment from Deer Park’s Elite Towers to construct the cell phone tower. That money would help fund the proposed tower at the Center firehouse.
• The district would be able to place its own antenna on the tower at the Manhanset firehouse to improve emergency communications in that area without charge.
• The district would receive ongoing revenue by splitting profits Elite collects from other companies paying to place their antennae on the tower.
Those revenues would help cover the cost of new radios the department needs as it transfers from low to high band service.

Also making the case for Elite, Verizon and the fire commissioners was attorney John Coughlin of Huntington-based Ré, Nielsen, Huber & Coughlin. Mr. Coughlin presented a series of witnesses on the effects of sounds from the tower, the aesthetics and the need for the 120-feet height of the structure.

They were challenged by David Harms, who lives adjacent to the proposed location. He brought his own expert, electrical engineer Jacob Sharony of North Babylon’s Mobius Consulting, to the hearing. Lou Caraccio, who lives near the proposed site on Primrose Place, also voiced concerns about noise and the height of the tower.

Mr. Harms said that after initially being opposed to the construction of the tower, he now agreed one was necessary for the safety of first responders, which he considered the highest priority.

But he objected to the size of the proposed structure and the daily, round-the-clock mechanical sound that, he said, the equipment will bring to a place where at night “the only sound is crickets and leaves blowing.”

Elite consultants said that noise analysis done on the proposed back-up generator and another equipment in the above-ground cabinet is compliant with the town’s noise ordinance. But Mr. Harms and Mr. Caraccio disputed this, calling for more soundproofing and a higher fence surrounding the equipment.

Mr. Coughlin said Elite would accommodate the neighbor’s requests for soundproofing.

Mr. Harms proposed a 70-foot tower, which he and Mr. Caraccio, along with Mr. Sharony, said is sufficient for proper cell phone and emergency services communication.

After the meeting, Mr. Caraccio said the 120-foot tower “is a revenue game. I’m convinced that what I saw and heard that 70 feet is the right height. The additional 50 feet will allow Elite to generate additional revenue [by leasing space to more cell phone service providers]. We’re a 12-square-mile Island with one third of that preserved. We don’t need the Cadillac of equipment. We need equipment that will do the job and keep our firefighters safe.”

During the meeting the idea that the proposed height of the tower was for any reason other than safety was disputed several times by Mr. Lechmanski and Chief Reiter.

They noted that tests done in March 2016 with a crane topped by an antenna to simulate reception at different heights concluded that 120 feet was the necessary height for reliable communication that might save lives in the future.