By Jenna O’Donnell |
LITTLE SILVER – It was standing room only on Monday night when several hundred Little Silver residents filled a school auditorium to ask their mayor and council why they had allowed Verizon to build a cell tower right in the center of town – less than 500 feet away from Markham Place School.
As part of an agreement made with residents at last month’s borough council meeting, Mayor Robert Neff Jr. and members of the council shared an account of how and why they had agreed to build the tower with Verizon and brought in a telecommunications engineer, who showed measurements of radiofrequency waves emitted by the tower to be well within range limits. Still, most residents remained skeptical of the tower’s safety and questioned the potential impacts on health, property value and the limits established by the FCC, which is not a health organization.
One resident, Michael Goldfarb, M.D., pointed out that other things like lead, asbestos and cigarettes were once deemed safe before, only to later be proven otherwise.
“I lived in an era where smoking was good for your throat,” Goldfarb said. “I’ve lived through these other things that were supposed to be no problem. Well, they are problems.”
The 95-foot cell tower was erected by Verizon last month in a parking lot behind borough hall, and turned on at the end of May. More carriers are expected to install cellular “nodes” in coming months. The monopole replaced an aging communications tower that had been used by police, fire and emergency responders and was meant to be a fix for spotty coverage.
Verizon became involved after moving to install its equipment on the roof of a nearby CVS Pharmacy in June of 2014. At that time, the borough was budgeting to replace the existing communications tower and negotiated with Verizon to install the cell tower on borough property, where it would be combined with the antenna needed by police and emergency services. Verizon, which funded the construction of the tower, will sell it to the borough for $1 upon completion and has a 25-year lease that will pay the borough $1.3 million. Part of the thinking in zoning borough property to allow cell towers had been that this would give the borough more control over location, height and use, said Councilman Don Galante, who read a statement summarizing the process that lead to the tower.
Once Verizon demonstrated a demand for service in the downtown area, Galante said the borough had little choice in the matter. As per the Telecommunications Act of 1996, local governments cannot block the installation of telecom infrastructure, no matter how unsightly. Galante, who has a grandchild in Little Silver schools and a daughter-in-law teaching at Markham Place, said he wasn’t too fond of the aesthetics either.
“Federal law is federal law,” he said. “Do I want a tower in downtown Little Silver? No. I can’t stop it. All I can control is where it goes.”
Still, dozens of residents stood up during a lengthy public forum with questions about what the borough was doing to remove or relocate the tower.
Borough officials could not go into specifics as to what actions were being taken legally, but told residents that all options were being explored.
“Our goal is to understand all of our possible solutions and resolutions to this problem,” said Neff, noting that the borough had met twice with Verizon to understand what the company was willing to do. He added that while local government does not typically move very quickly, they had been working nonstop to try to address concerns. “We did not anticipate the volume of discontent,” he said.
That discontent has manifested in “Get the Cell Out” lawn signs across the borough and a grassroots community group known as Little Silver Against the Cell Tower, which has two members as part of a cell tower committee with Neff, two council members and the board of education president.
Politicians have also grabbed hold of the issue, with Sen. Richard Codey (D-27) planning to draft a bill that requires cell towers to be located at least 2,500 feet away from schools. Christopher Healy, a candidate for borough council, proposed a November ballot referendum to move the tower to a more suitable location.
Where and how the nearly complete cell tower might be moved is still unclear, as the borough is legally bound to a 25-year lease agreement. But some residents were hopeful that something could be done.
“There’s communication happening now,” said Marc Gasperino, one of the community members on the cell tower committee. “I think there’s a lot of good people who love this community pushing forward on this.”
This article was first published in the June 15-June 22, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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