In a community as small as the Town of Gardiner, sometimes issues that seem fairly minor in retrospect become subjects of hot controversy, if only because they’re the only game in town for residents who relish the sport of politics. Decisions that happen routinely in larger burgs can take years to resolve while every active citizen gets his or her opportunity to raise what-ifs during the public comment process. In the year 2011, that principle of small-town life was best-illustrated in Gardiner by what many residents view as the glacial pace of progress on the siting of one or more cell towers in a community with extensive dead spots for cellphone reception.
Gardiner’s original legislation governing cell towers was written in 2000, and the flap over where to site them has been going on since 2003. So, although the process came considerably closer to resolution in 2011, Gardinerites who feel vulnerable because they can’t call 911 from their homes in an emergency feel frustrated that the arguments are still going on, while some residents who have witnessed the negative impacts of cell towers on communities that fast-tracked them have not yet had their concerns laid to rest.
The year certainly was characterized by some critical milestones in the tower-siting process. After posting a draft lease agreement with Wireless Edge (WE) on the town website, the Town Board voted in March to accept the draft as a basis for the company to move forward with its application. The agreement for a renewable five-year lease would enable WE to build two 120-foot cell towers: one at Town Hall and another at the highway department site on South Mountain Road. A previous proposal to site a taller tower at the town landfill on Steve’s Lane went down to defeat as a result of public opposition.
Signing that tentative lease agreement didn’t commit the town to accept WE’s proposal, but it did give the company and its legal consultants the green light to prepare an application affecting the Town Hall site only. It was submitted by summer’s end, complete except for certain aspects of the State Environmental Quality Review — notably the balloon test required to assess potential visual impacts. In October the Town Board declared itself lead agency on WE’s application and referred it to the Zoning and Planning Boards for additional review, as well as to the Ulster County Planning Board.
In November the balloon test was conducted and the visual impact study completed; the Town Board issued a negative declaration on the project’s Environmental Assessment Form, finding that the tower’s potential environmental impacts upon the community would be minimal. The Zoning Board of Appeals approved three variances required for the project to move forward and the Planning Board recommended site plan approval.
But at its final meeting of the year, the Town Board had to make its site plan approval conditional, on account of new concerns raised by citizens regarding potential impacts on the safety of air traffic and skydivers at the Skydive the Ranch facility adjoining the Town Hall site. A provision of the zoning law requires written confirmation from the Federal Aviation Administration that no special modifications to the tower, such as lights or striping, are needed to ensure safety at the nearest airport. The simple online tool used by WE’s lawyers to fulfill this requirement was deemed less than due diligence, since it identified Kobelt Airport and not the Ranch as the closest facility. The Federal Communications Commission’s 150-day “Shock Clock” is now running on WE’s application, so resolution of this new wrinkle must be accomplished within the new month or two in order for the project to commence. Stay tuned!
Another teapot-sized tempest that took place in 2011 involved a decision by the Gardiner Fire District to purchase a half-million-dollar firetruck. When the proposal to allocate funding for a 2,800-gallon pumper tanker was approved by a 49-to-43 vote at a sparsely attended special election in July, residents complained that the decisionmaking process had been too secretive and the vote insufficiently publicized. In response, a public information meeting was held in August, but requests for a second vote were turned down by District commissioners. The election for new commissioners in December drew the highest turnout of any Gardiner Fire District vote in its history by a factor of more than double, so closer public scrutiny of District expenditures can be expected in the future.