New Cell Tower Proposal by Springs Fire District Faces Few Hurdles to Approval - 27 East

New Cell Tower Proposal by Springs Fire District Faces Few Hurdles to Approval

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The Springs Fire District's existing tower on Fort Pond Boulevard, as seen from Talmage Farm Lane.

The Springs Fire District's existing tower on Fort Pond Boulevard, as seen from Talmage Farm Lane.

The new cell tower proposed for the Springs Fire Department headquarters will be basically identical to the existing one, but relocated to the center of the property where it will conform with town setback requirements. 

The new cell tower proposed for the Springs Fire Department headquarters will be basically identical to the existing one, but relocated to the center of the property where it will conform with town setback requirements. MICHAEL WRIGHT

The existing tower, which was built without town approvals, would have needed dozens of variances to remain in place because it sits too close to neighboring property lines and homes. 

The existing tower, which was built without town approvals, would have needed dozens of variances to remain in place because it sits too close to neighboring property lines and homes. MICHAEL WRIGHT

authorMichael Wright on Apr 12, 2023

The Springs Fire District has proposed constructing a new 150-foot-tall cellular tower behind the firehouse that will conform to new town codes for such structures and could have a quick path to approval.

If approved, the tower would replace one constructed behind the firehouse in 2015 but never put into service after it got mired in legal wrangling with the town and neighbors. It would also supplant another pending application for an even taller and more stalwart tower that the fire district had hoped would host emergency communications equipment for the entire town.

“The town has updated their cell tower law, so now we have a spot that works for us and keeps the fall zone entirely within our property,” Springs Fire District Commissioner Tim Taylor said on Monday. “It should be pretty much a straightforward review if we hit the checklist, which I believe we do.”

The tower will be essentially identical to the one that now stands in the northeast corner of the 3-acre firehouse property, where it looms over neighboring homes on Fort Pond Boulevard and Talmage Farm Lane. The new structure will also be a 150-foot “stealth monopole” design that conceals the cellular antennas inside the metal frame of a cylindrical pole.

The new tower would be basically in the center of the property, well away from neighboring properties.

The site plan application to the Town Planning Board notes that no variances from zoning codes are needed.

That is only the case because of updates to the town code regarding the construction of cell towers made last year to bring local laws in line with federal guidelines that have steadily lowered the barriers local municipalities can throw up to block or limit the installation of cellular infrastructure.

Previously, the town code required that a tower have a separation from neighboring property lines equal to twice its height. The separation requirement, known as a fall zone, was intended to protect residents from ice or debris falling from the tower. But to conform with federal guidelines, which say that a fall zone equal only to the actual height of a tower from a property line is sufficient, the town rewrote its code in 2022 — with staff noting that the new rules would make a relocated tower on the fire district property legal.

Springs Fire Commissioner Peter Grimes, the board’s chairman, said that town staff have been encouraging of the district’s shift to the new proposal.

In an assessment of the new proposal for the Planning Board, Assistant Planning Director Eric Schantz said that the plans meet the new code.

“The subject property is situated in northeastern Springs in an area known to be a coverage gap for personal wireless service. Additionally, it is situated in one of the small areas of commercial zoning within the hamlet of Springs and on a property which contains an active firehouse,” Schantz wrote in his analysis. “As such, it is an ideal location for a new personal wireless service facility.”

He noted that while the tower would not be in one of the preferred “opportunity sites” that the town has identified in as choice locations — on town land, in areas with dense tree cover to conceal the towers, or on existing structures — it is also not in an “avoidance area,” like a flood zone or historic district. The current tower is visible in the vistas across from Accabonac Harbor, which has been designated a scenic area of statewide significance.

As cellular phones have become the primary means of communication for the general public, the need for the supportive infrastructure to ensure good service has come to be seen by regulators as a critical need in terms of both expected convenience as well as public safety.

But in Springs, cellular service and communications between police and fire dispatchers and first responders has long been abysmal, even nonexistent in several areas of the town’s most populated hamlet. With the increasing appetite for data of modern smartphones and the spike in population experienced during the pandemic, the cry for improvements to the cellular service in the region have reached a crescendo — but improvements have been tortuously slow to follow.

The town has embarked on a new cellular master plan, hoping to use regulations to both spur and steer the siting of new cellular infrastructure in ways that would be most convenient and least obtrusive in the local communities.

Overhauling the town code and accepting that it did not have the authority to block new tower proposals out of hand were among the first steps.

After being sued by AT&T twice in recent years over denials of tower applications by the Planning Board, the town has signed onto settlements that effectively guaranteed the company would be allowed to construct its desired equipment with only minimal influence by town regulatory boards.

The Planning Board was to hold a public hearing this week on a proposal for a 70-foot monopole behind the historic St. Peter’s Chapel in Springs that has drawn cries of objection from neighbors and has been seen as wholly objectionable by town staff and Planning Board members. It will be approved nonetheless by virtue of the settlement agreement and the refusals of both AT&T and the leadership of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which owns and maintains the 142-year-old chapel, to drop the proposal. The new tower will boost service only for AT&T customers and only in an area with a less than 1-mile radius of the tower.

The fire district erected the existing tower on its property in 2015 without seeking site plan approval from the town. As an independent municipality, the district commissioners had presumed to be freed from having to go to the town for approvals of projects on their own property. The town’s building inspectors had agreed and issued building permits for the structure.

The tower was also put up with essentially no public notice. In 2009, the district commissioners had proposed erecting a tower and held a public meeting to discuss it, drawing a deluge of objections from residents that derailed the idea. When it came up again six years later, the commissioners discussed the matter only in their rarely attended meetings — at this past Monday’s meeting there were no members of the public in attendance — and announced it publicly only in a small legal advertisement in the East Hampton Star about a month before the tower was erected.

Neighbors quickly objected and went to the town Zoning Board of Appeals seeking an interpretation of whether the district had followed state guidelines in issuing a self-approval of the project. The ZBA ruled the district had not met the criteria for erecting the tower without town approval and revoked the building permit. The district sued to have the ZBA’s ruling thrown out but was rebuffed by a judge.

Despite the revoked building permit and legal battles, the tower was never removed.

In 2019, with the town looking for a site at which to loft antennas for its new $13 million communications system, the district submitted an application for a 180-foot tower, set back from the property lines much more than the existing pole. But the proposal, at the time, still did not fit within the town’s requirement of double the height of the structure from residences and the town chose to put its antennas on a tower proposed at Camp Blue Bay off Flaggy Hole Road, about a mile from the fire district property.

While that tower, which was approved in December and will be 185 feet tall when it is erected this spring or summer, will suit the town’s emergency communications in Springs, the cellular antennas that will be mounted on it will still not reach some corners of eastern Springs and northern Amagansett. The 150-foot tower at the firehouse will extend the reach of cellular coverage south and east of Accabonac Road, nearly to Albert’s Landing.

The application to the Planning Board was submitted by Elite Towers, the cellular tower company that erected the existing tower in 2015 and has handled much of the district’s legal fight to win approval for its use. The company will contract with cellular providers to mount antennas on the pole, and will pay the district monthly lease frees — which can be several thousand dollars per provider.

The new monopole will be designed to hold only cellular antennas, although members of the fire commissioners board said that they hope to also mount the basic whip antennas that are on the top of the current monopole and support the older low-band radios that the departments keeps in service in case of an outage of the town’s dispatching system.

Commissioners said they have been told the tower review will examine some aesthetic details of the new tower — like it’s color, a topic that has spawned debate in the cellular tower world over which colors are least visually impactful — but otherwise should face a far less rocky road to approval than its twin did eight years ago.

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