Cell tower negotiations 'at a standstill'

Commissioners also say there is no connection between any AT&T revenue and paying off the bond for the firehouse

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By John Haughey

— Negotiations between the Pine Island Fire District and AT&T regarding a plan to erect a 150-foot monopole at the district's firehouse on County Route 1 are "at a standstill."

Commissioners told about 20 Pine Island residents during their May 15 regular meeting that AT&T has rejected a proposal they crafted during a three-hour executive session on April 23.

The fire district's proposal "was rejected by AT&T and, at this point, I think that the best course of action is for us to wait and meet with our attorney," Commissioner Larry Kernath said. "So, right now, I think that the cell tower project is on hold until AT&T reaches out to us. I guess that is the best way to put it."

Although commissioners would not elaborate on what, specifically, the telecom giant is balking at, one apparent point of contention is the district's insistence that the conditions and requirements it imposes on AT&T and its tower contractor, New Cingular Wireless, will remain applicable regardless who owns and maintains the tower.

Several residents noted that in October, AT&T sold the rights to 9,700 cell towers in the United States for $4.85 billion to Crown Castle International Corp. They fear AT&T will eventually sell a prospective Pine Island tower to Crown Castle, which will demand to renegotiate any existing agreement.

"That is a big issue we are trying to prevent," Commissioner George Haas said.

New Cingular Wireless approached the Pine Island Fire District last year with a proposal to erect a 150-foot cell phone tower in a fenced complex it will lease at the firehouse. They signed a two-year lease with the district last May.

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.

Commissioners denied that the revenue is needed to pay the bond. "Not at all," Chairman Ken Gurda said. "The project for the new firehouse was 14 years in the making."

Gurda said the bond will be paid off, as planned and approved by Pine Island voters, with revenues generated by the district's tax levy.

But the proposal "absolutely has to do with raising money" for new emergency communications equipment, Kernath said, noting AT&T will subsidize expensive technology upgrades as part of the tower project that the district otherwise would have to invest in eventually at its own expense.

This is "a deal where we are getting a lot of benefits and one of the benefits is we'd already have the tower that we need," he said. "This is an attempt by us to have a little foresight and save the taxpayers money."

'Not good money'

Some Pine Island residents - especially those who live in the immediate vicinity of the Pulaski Highway/County Route 1 crossroads - adamantly oppose the proposal, citing concerns about health effects from exposure to cell tower radio frequency (RF) waves on the 25 children who live within 300 yards of the firehouse, devalued home values and the visual blemish of a 150-foot pole looming above the Black Dirt hamlet.

"Not all money is good money," resident Theresa Benjamin said. "It's just not good money, in my opinion."

Commissioners were ambivalent about offers from two area landowners to donate property for the project. While one landowner has several parcels available that could house a proposed tower, Pine Island resident Ray Ruszkiewicz said his offer is restricted only to the district's emergency communications equipment upgrade.

Ruszkiewicz said no one from the PIFD contacted him to discuss his offer. "Hopefully, they'll pay attention to it and eliminate the acrimony," he said, emphasizing the offer is only for the district's equipment. "Hey," he added, "AT&T can go someplace else."

Commissioners noted the town of Warwick forbids cell towers on private land.

Unlike the previous two special meetings to deliberate the proposed cell tower, the May 15 regular meeting did not feature three-hour executive sessions followed by combative midnight confrontations between the board and frustrated residents.

Whose sign is this anyway?

It did, however, include a 20-minute debate about allowing the Warwick Valley School District to use its electronic marques sign on County Road 1 to notify voters to cast their May 20 school budget and board election ballots at Pine Island's new polling place - the firehouse.

Commissioner Floyd Morgiewicz said the fire district has a standing policy that prohibits any organization other than the district to use the sign. Allowing the school district to post information on the sign will create a precedent for other organizations to request the same, he said, adding, "All it will do is get us in trouble."

The discussion before fire district rate-payers who are also school district taxpayers had some scratching their heads. After all, it is they - not commissioners --who own the sign and allowing the school district - which they, not the school board, also own - to post "Vote Here" on a sign made sense to them.

Haas agreed. "This is a polling place," he said. "The school board is elected by the people and functions the same as this body. We should support other government bodies."

Commissioners approved the request in a 3-2 vote with Morgiewicz and Kernath dissenting. While Gurda cast the deciding vote, he did so with reservations.

"There is a lot of hardship in the community about the school district - they took our school away from us," he said. "In good faith, I'll vote for it."

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