AT&T dials up 'Plan B' with school district

As PIFD deal stagnates, telecom giant revives Pine Island Elementary cell tower proposal

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By John Haughey

— The Warwick Valley School Board's Facilities Committee on June 23 will review a proposal by New Cingular Wireless to erect a 130-foot cell phone tower at the closed Pine Island Elementary School.

The Facilities Committee revealed on June 3 that New Cingular Wireless, an AT&T subsidiary, has resubmitted a request to build a tower in a 24-square-foot plot behind the school, which was closed in June 2011.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Tim Holmes explained that AT&T initially approached the district "several years ago" with a proposal to erect a tower at Pine Island Elementary on School House Road once it closed.

'Looks like we are Plan B'
Holmes said talks between the district and the telecom giant ceased after New Cingular Wireless secured a preliminary lease agreement with the Pine Island Fire District in May 2013 to erect a 150-foot cell phone tower and emergency communications antenna at the district's firehouse on County Route 1.

The firehouse proposal has been hotly contested, particularly by nearby residents, citing concerns about health effects from exposure to cell tower radio frequency (RF) waves, devalued home values and the visual blemish of a 150-foot pole looming above the Black Dirt hamlet.

Pine Island Fire Commissioner Larry Kernath said AT&T's renewed negotiations with the school district was "news to me." He said PIFD is still engaged in talks with AT&T, before adding, "We haven't heard anything from them" in weeks.

The commissioners were set to discuss the proposed firehouse cell phone tower in a June 10 special meeting. The district announced on June 4 that the special meeting had been canceled.

With negotiations between AT&T and the fire district "now at an impasse," Holmes said, AT&T has apparently decided to resurrect talks with the school district.

"It looks like we are Plan B," School Board member Keith Parsons said, noting in his view, if there is an appropriate place for a cell phone tower in Pine Island, it's at the firehouse.

Similar rental agreement

Holmes said AT&T is offering the school district the same rental income agreement it proposed to the fire district - anywhere from $24,000 to $60,000 a year in rental income, potentially generating as much as $300,000 over the five-year span of the 40-page contract.

Holmes said any potential source of non-tax revenue deserves merit. "There is definitely a need for a cell tower in Pine Island. It will go up" somewhere sooner or later, he said, so it is incumbent upon the district to earnestly consider the proposal if is determined that the closed school is, indeed, a safe place for a tower.

And that - RF safety concerns, not rental income - will be the key component of any school board discussion, Parsons said.

"Sixty thousand, in all honesty, is not going to break the bank," he said.

'It's got to go someplace'

Parsons said after working nine years in the telecommunications industry, he's dubious about some of the health claims about exposure to RF waves emitted by cell phone towers.

On the other hand, he said, he's not dismissive of nearby residents' concerns, noting, "I'm kind of torn - I wouldn't want one in my backyard."

"It would be great to have the money," Board member Shannon Hockswender said, "but it's just not a good idea."

Board member Robert Howe, a Pine Island resident, said many residents are frustrated by the area's notoriously poor cell phone reception.

"The general feeling in Pine Island," he said, is a tower would be welcome and there's plenty of room for it.

"It's got to go someplace," he said, before adding, "I'm mixed. I want to hear from residents. There are a lot of rumors out there. What are the facts?"

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