Executive Session-athon

Following a three-hour executive session last week, Pine Island Fire Commissioner set another meeting on cell phone tower for May 7

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  • Photo illustration AT&T subsidiary New Cingular Wireless PCS approached the Pine Island Fire Department last year with a proposal to erect a 150-foot cell phone tower in a fenced complex it would lease at the firehouse.

By John Haughey

— It took three hours sequestered in executive session for the Pine Island Fire District Commissioners to decide they need to meet again in executive session before they can publicly discuss details of negotiations with AT&T over its proposal to erect a 150-foot monopole at the district's firehouse on County Route 1.

The board agreed a week ago Wednesday night to discuss the cell phone tower proposal during a May 7 special meeting when, commissioners warned, they will once again open a public meeting, recess to executive session and emerge later - to maybe, or maybe not, answer questions from any residents ready and willing to wait to midnight to ask them.

Following the executive session

Commissioners told about 25 people who endured the three-hour, eight-minute executive session that:

Federal law precludes the board from denying a cell tower application because of health concerns if the proposal meets radiation standards set by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. AT&T's proposal is within those guidelines, therefore the board cannot deny the proposal outright because residents are leery of radiation exposure.

Legal and consultant fees are among unresolved issues.

The proposal - if approved by commissioners - must eventually be endorsed by Warwick's Town Zoning Board even after the "Monroe Doctrine" standards are met.

The process will continue to be laborious, although it will gradually shift to public hearings instead of marathon closed-door deliberations.

Since negotiations continue, commissioners otherwise refused to divulge details, prompting one resident to ask if, essentially, they are reporting that they have nothing to report.

"I think that is a fair assessment," Board Attorney Frank Simeone said, noting much of the executive session focused on "not disclosable" amendments to the proposed lease agreement.


AT&T subsidiary New Cingular Wireless PCS, LLC approached the fire department last year with a proposal to erect a 150-foot cell phone tower in a fenced complex it will lease at the firehouse.

The lease agreement would generate anywhere from $24,000 to $96,000 a year in rental income for the district, which borrowed $3 million in a 30-year bond in 2008 to build its firehouse.

In exchange for the site, AT&T will apparently subsidize or assist the fire district in enhancing its communications technologies and equipment in as yet undisclosed ways that are being negotiated.

Those in opposition

Some Pine Island residents - especially those who live in the immediate vicinity of the Pulaski Highway/County Route 1 crossroads - oppose the proposal, citing concerns about hotly debated health effects from exposure to cell tower radio frequency (RF) waves, as well as devalued home values and the visual impact of a 150-foot pole looming above the Black Dirt hamlet.

Pine Island resident Jeanette Shanahan told commissioners they have the moral responsibility to deny AT&T's proposal because of an array of conflicting studies and enduring uncertainties about the allegedly benign radiation exposure nearby families and volunteer firefighters will be subjected to, regardless of federal law that precludes denying a cell phone tower application solely on RF health concerns if it meets federal exposure standards.

"It should be a dead issue," she said. "There is a legal issue and a moral issue - you have to decide."

Theresa Benjamin, a homeowner whose property is within 300 feet of the proposed cell tower, asked if the board has completed the "Monroe Test" in determining if it can make land-use decisions independent of the Town of Warwick.

Warwick's Town Planning Board has agreed to allow the board to be the lead agency in assessing the proposal if commissioners meet a nine-point test crafted by the state Supreme Court in its County of Monroe v. City of Rochester ruling to determine if government entities, such as fire districts, are subject to land use laws.

Warwick Town Supervisor Michael Sweeton said that the town doesn't "necessarily withhold consent" for the fire district's lead agency status, but wants "the Monroe questions" answered.

"To this point," he said in mid-April, commissioners "have not answered" that request. "At this point, it is not clear if they can proceed until they answer the questions."

Commissioner George Haas said there is a reason why the board hasn't delved into answering the "Monroe questions:" The evaluation "hasn't even started yet."

Simeone said even if the board meets the Monroe Test, it will have to submit the site plan to the Warwick Town ZBA for a variance. "The potential need for a variance" has not, as yet, been determined, he said.

Benjamin said AT&T came to the district seeking to deal with a coverage problem in its regional network and the board, dismissing neighbors' concerns, saw it as an opportunity to dramatically upgrade its communications technologies and generate revenues.

'No conflict'

Commissioners "hitched their wagon to their star," Benjamin said, questioning the role of Clint Smith, a Pine Island volunteer firefighter and RF engineer who is serving as a paid consultant to the board in evaluating the AT&T proposal. Smith, clad in turnout pants and jacket, joined the sequestered board for two of its three hours behind closed doors on Wednesday.

Simeone flatly denied any implications that Smith's participation in the negotiations as a paid consultant and department volunteer is inappropriate. "No conflict," he said.

Haas said the district is fortunate that it has a volunteer firefighter who just happens to be an RF engineer and "a well-known expert" in the field who knows what the district needs and understands Pine Island.

Smith serves as an RF consultant for the Greenwood Lake Village Planning Board, which is also pondering a hotly contested proposal by AT&T to erect a 120-foot tower atop Sterling Ridge near Wah-Ta-Wah Park.

In an April 3 Greenwood Lake Village Planning Board meeting, Smith grilled AT&T RF engineer Daniel Penesso and attorney Dan Leary in testy acronym-laced technical exchanges that essentially revealed the telecom giant was providing test data gauging effects of technologies that will soon be outmoded.

Haas said who pays Smith's fees is part of the negotiations, as is a determination of who will pay Simeone's $250 an hour fee - which, as residents calculated, amounts to $750 per executive session.

Simeone dismissed Benjamin's claim that the district could generate up to $30,000 a month if it allows AT&T to sublease the five antennae it could place on the site. "It's more like $5,000," he said.

That would still be enough to offset costs and ensure district ratepayers are spared tax hikes for years to come while improving communications capacities, Commissioner Larry Kernath said.

This is "an opportunity to help the district," he said. "I believe it is a good deal for the entire district - an overall good deal."

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