Proposed Milan cell tower still focus of contention

Planning board gets an earful from residents anticipating the visual impact

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Milan’s planning board continued its public hearing Oct. 2 for the proposed cell tower on Academy Hill Road, and was confronted by unhappy residents concerned about property values and their views.

Verizon Wireless is applying to Milan for a special use permit and site plan approval for the 150-foot-high tower, to be built on a 93.4 acre parcel, with an adjoining 30.2 acre parcel providing an access road for maintenance.

Before the hearing opened, Liz Axelson, the planner retained by the town to review such projects, presented the board with a list of historic and environmental resources, many of which she concluded would not be affected by the cell tower. She advised the planning board to request examples of two other styles of tower, including the camouflaged type of monopine cell tower. However, she said she didn’t think further balloon tests were necessary. In a balloon test, the applicant arranges to have a balloon sent up at the spot where the tower is planned so that planners can get a visual sense of how visible the structure will be once built.

Planning Board chair Joan Wyant said, “Personally, I think the balloon test that was done previously was everything that we could possibly need at this time.”

Scott Olson, the attorney representing Verizon, noted that a significant visual impact would not consist of merely being able to see a tower, especially from private property. Instead, he said, planners are directed to a list of inventoried resources that are sensitive visual areas and usually places the public would enjoy. Then, he added, it is the board’s job to weigh the impact if a tower can be seen from those areas.

Olson presented Verizon’s initial proposal to town planners in March, and had told them that the new tower was needed because existing towers would not close coverage gaps on the Taconic Parkway. The gaps, at half a mile each, are deemed “significant” and enough time to lose a cell phone call while driving 55 mph in a car, he said at an August meeting.

At the Oct. 2 hearing, he conceded that the tower would indeed show up on the landscape. “There are some spots where it will be visible. Quite frankly, it has to be, or the technology doesn’t work. Or at least, the structure has to be above the tree line,” he said.

After further discussion, the board concluded that the main place where the tower will be visible is from private residences on Academy Hill Road and that no further balloon tests would be requested. The board agreed that they could file a letter with the State Historic Preservation Office stating that no historic properties would be affected by the project.

Several residents spoke once the public hearing was re-opened (continued from meetings in July and August). Themes of resident concern focused on spoiled views and decreased property values, which have been consistent throughout the hearing process. Planning board secretary Karen Buechele confirmed that only one or two letters in support of the tower have been received; everyone who has spoken at the hearings offered negative comments about the plan.

Gordon Oliosi, of Academy Hill Road, wrote a letter saying that the tower would trigger a decrease in property values around the Academy Hill Road area and with them, revenues for the town. He said his neighbors use a booster sold by Verizon to improve their cell phone reception at home and he did not see that a cell tower would benefit Milan residents.

Joe Grotto, another Academy Hill Road resident, noted it was his third time speaking on the topic and said he represented several other residents who could not attend the meeting.

“From our hill, we will be looking directly at this tower. Olioso, who built his dream home, will be looking directly at it…for residents, we have that booster. I think it’s the cost of out-to-dinner and a few drinks,” he said, adding. “We’re a small town. We don’t have a shopping center, we don’t have a post office, we’re getting our gas station back. What we do have is beauty…To destroy it for the benefit of the parkway folks…makes no sense to me.”

David Gordon, an attorney who said he represented “neighbors and residents,” said his group of residents had also hired Cavell, Mertz & Associates, a broadcasting and telecommunications firm, to review the plans. He pointed out that just because the signals drop below Verizon’s standard of -85 dBm does not mean a call is necessarily dropped. He asked that Verizon report how many calls are dropped in the area under consideration for coverage from the tower.

“One of the things that’s extremely odd about this [project] is that it is almost specifically geared toward the highway. Every other [cell tower] that I’ve seen has been at least nominally geared toward the community,” Gordon said. He told the board that, in a political climate where laws against phoning and texting while driving have been passed, it seems strange to be focused on closing a coverage gap on a highway.

Gordon also said a lattice-type tower was the last kind his clients wanted to see. Later, planning board member James Jeffreys noted that the four closest towers, including the one on Woody Row Road in Milan and the town-owned tower at the recycling center on South Road, are all lattice-style towers.

Then he told the board that he has concerns about a conflict of interest with Ron Graiff, the radio frequency consultant hired by the town to review the plans. Gordon said that Graiff owns a cell tower in Pawling and that Verizon is one of his tenants on that tower. Therefore, Gordon asked the board not to rely further on Graiff’s counsel or analysis. “It definitely calls into question whether the board is getting an independent view of things,” he said.

Olson confirmed that Verizon is a tenant on a tower Graiff owns, and said he thought Graiff was usually upfront with boards about that relationship.

Graiff, who did not attend the meeting, told The Observer later that he has been a non-controlling shareholder in a company that owns a cell tower in Pawling for 25 years. Its tenants include Verizon, AT&T, Metro North, and radio stations. He said he considers it an investment and also a matter of public knowledge.

He also said he has been involved in other consultations that involved Verizon, some of which led to him recommending for the project, others led him to recommend against. “Any claim against my integrity is unfounded, it’s ridiculous, and it’s insulting,” he added.

At the hearing, however, Allen LoBrutto of Academy Hill Road told the board it has an obligation to hire an independent RF engineer. “Ron is not independent in this. He has a conflict of interest…He’s getting revenue from the same people who are before you. He and his work have to be stricken from the record,” he said.

Councilman Jack Grumet questioned whether the benefits of the new tower would outweigh the negatives. “I’ll be benefitting from the service, but I don’t think it’s right that property owners will have to take such a large economic hit on their [property values],” he said. He suggested the board consider requesting that Verizon lower the tower height to decrease it from view of more residents.

Axelson reminded the board that visual concerns would be a part of the board’s SEQR review of the project, one of the next tasks for the board after it closes the public hearing. The public hearing will continue at the planning board’s next meeting, Nov. 6 at 7pm.

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