The mystery of the Overlook Mt. communication towers

Thirty-two years ago a 299-foot tower was erected atop Overlook Mountain to transmit a television signal to hundreds of thousands of pre-cable television sets in the valleys below. “WTZA” was an acronym for the signal’s extensive range: from Tappan Zee to Albany. A few years later two somewhat smaller towers were erected nearby on the same mountain to accommodate the growing appetite for cell phone use. Today the towers are adorned with dozens of cables, whip antennas, pole antennas, circular antennas, parabolic dish antennas, four-bay antennas, repeaters, reflectors, and microwave and UHF transmitters that have little or nothing to do with their original purpose.

What function do these additional pieces of hardware serve? Do they help or endanger us? Spy on us? Facilitate communication among emergency responders? Serve the economic interest of corporations? Which ones? Further the political purposes of governments? Anyone who tries to find answers to these questions will realize that among those who know, no one is willing to talk, including the owners of the towers.

Earlier this year I wrote every government agency I could imagine and every private owner of record — 19 parties in all — if any could tell me what devices were up there, their owners and the purpose of each. Here’s the list and the response:

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  • Federal Communications Commission — no response
  • Federal Aviation Administration — no response
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation — no response
  • Central Intelligence Agency — no response
  • Department of Homeland Security — no response
  • State Senator George Amedore — no response
  • U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand — no response
  • U.S. Congressman John Faso — no response
  • Ulster County Legislator Jonathan Heppner — no response
  • Ulster County Executive Mike Hein — no response
  • Ulster County Legislature Chairman Kenneth Ronk responded to say I should contact Ulster County Executive Mike Hein. (see above)
  • United States Senator Charles Schumer responded to say I should contact State Senator George Amedore. (see above)

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Region 3 Director Ian Dunn sent me a prompt reply but only to say that while the DEC owns 213 acres of land on Overlook Mountain in addition to the Catskill Forest Preserve, they are subject to two private leases where the towers are located, one owned by C. Powers Taylor to operate the WTZA (later WRNN) and the other by Peter Moncure for operating other transmission and relay devices. As the leaseholders and not the DEC manage those lands, the DEC does not keep track of entities to whom Taylor and Moncure sub-lease space on their structures, nor how many nor what purposes the abundance of antennas and transmitters serve.

  • Overlook Mt. Tower, LLC. c/o C. Powers Taylor — no response
  • Television Station WRNN — no response
  • Peter Moncure — no response
  • Radio Soft c/o Peter Moncure — no response

State Assemblyman Kevin Cahill was the most forthcoming of all state and federal officials. He contacted the Public Service Commission, which in turn suggested contacting the FCC. (see above). He next contacted Congressman Faso who advised Cahill that the Town of Woodstock would be the best place to obtain the information, but advised that any entity operating a device may not divulge its purpose “due to security and other related concerns.”

The Town of Woodstock and its Building Department was receptive to my enquiries by opening its files for examination and answering my questions. But they had little useful information to offer, not because they were unwilling to divulge it but because it was not there to be divulged.

Matters are not completely unknown. Buried in the tower of papers the Building Department maintains on the towers of steel is a seven-year old inventory of the hardware on the WTZA/WRNN television tower. It was supplied by Overlook Mt. Tower, LLC, Hawthorne, N.Y., which owns the structure, listing eight antennas and four owners including New York Communications Co. in Poughkeepsie and New York State Electric and Gas Co. in Binghamton. But this tells us very little, as the named corporations may be agents for other entities not disclosed. And there is an old, visual inventory of hardware on the two Moncure towers, drawn by its owner. In 1995, the Woodstock Journal published the drawings and estimated that about 25 antennas were hung on all three towers. It is difficult to be certain of the precise number because a single antenna may have two or four arms. The Moncure complex, moreover, includes a cinder block shed that supports additional antennas on its roof as well.

As of December 10, 2017, there appear to be about 18 antennas on the old WTZA tower and about 19 on the Moncure structures or 37 in total. The Town, I was told, keeps no inventory in either visual or textual form.

When an application to add electronic hardware to the either tower is submitted for Building Department approval, it normally reveals only technical information. For example, on July 8, 2014, a request was made by Taylor’s Overlook Mountain Tower to install a “circular antenna and one microwave dish” at the 120-foot level. No private or public owners of the new devices were mentioned nor were any of their functions indicated. A few applications are more informative. For example, on June 20, 2011, the same entity asked to “install a 20 foot, four-bay antenna with reflector.” The applicant stated its client was “the New York State Police,” but its purpose was not on the application or communicated to the Town. Nor, apparently, was it asked.

The year 2011 seems to have been a turning point in the process by which permission for additions to the towers was granted. In February, Overlook Mt. Tower’s attorney wrote Building Inspector Andreassen a long letter containing legal precedents and arguments why the placement of additional antennas should be granted routinely by the Building Inspector despite the fact that the tower is located within the (R-8) Residential Zoning District as well as the (SO) Scenic Overlay District under Woodstock zoning laws. The legal argument, spread over seven densely packed pages, could be distilled to a single conclusion: “(The) addition of antennas to an existing communications tower…is merely a continuation of the current nonconforming use and the same does not constitute an alteration…under applicable law.”

If the proposal was accepted, it would mean all tower owners could henceforth avoid costly and revealing hearings before the Planning Board each time they wanted to add an antenna. All they would need is building permit to be issued by the Building Inspector alone.

Andreassen agreed. He determined that a ‘major’ modification of an existing facility, defined by the zoning law, would require a special use permit (and a hearing). But in his opinion the addition of future antennas, provided they met the structural integrity of the tower, “does not meet the definition of ‘major’ modification.”

Having won a major victory by letter, Overlook Mt. Tower wanted to secure its advantage. In April, its attorney wrote Andreassen again to confirm the latter’s consent, adding that his determination would, by logical extension, relieve Overlook Mt. Tower of lengthy (SEQRA) environmental review hearings as well. There is no record of a reply, but most would agree that in making this extension the Tower’s attorney was correct.

But it cannot be said with certainty that The Building Inspector’s 2011 uncritical acceptance to the Tower’s request to leapfrog over Special Use Permitting was right. With this, reasonable citizens (and attorneys) might disagree. Of course, even if the applicant were to be asked at a hearing what purpose a proposed antenna would serve, the Planning Board might not have the authority to deny it even if the Board found its use undesirable. But at least the people of Woodstock would know.

At this point — here I turn from journalist to editorialist — the task is not to debate what the Town ought to have done but to ascertain what is on the towers atop its signature mountain. There is no reason why this could not be done. An inquiry would reside at the center of the Town’s first purpose: protecting and promoting the welfare of the people of Woodstock. The reason which justifies regulating land use is not only to establish a reasonable orderliness to growth but to preserve some very basic human and natural values, ones which, when measured against the economic value of growth itself, should prevail.

As Edward Sanders (an author of the present zoning law) once said, “Just because you own your land does not mean you can build a nuclear reactor in your back yard.”

In my desire to ascertain who owns the antennas and what purpose they serve I have run up against a political philosophy that acts as an impenetrable wall: what a private business does on its property is not the business of the Town. Some people may disagree.

There are no nuclear reactors on Overlook Mountain. Other than that it’s hard to say. No one knows. And no one knows how to know.

There are 9 comments

  1. Jack Pawling

    While I doubt there’s anything nefarious going on, I hope this article prompts a response where the inquiries did not. It’s irritating when public agencies and representatives feel they’re above responding. If that’s allowed to be the norm, then there really is an opportunity for shady stuff.

  2. Karl Krause

    You might want to contact the Overlook Mountain Amatuer Radio Club, (Omarc). A lot of the members are very knowledgeable and may be able to tell what the antennas are and what they do just by looking at them, or they could detect what signal and strength possibly is coming from each.

  3. Bart Friedman

    I feel another nerve getting pinched while reading that there might be weird secrets held by the mountain towers. Made me think of how the Russians are perfectly capable of warping our thinking…through cosmic rays, microwaves and such….and if the Russians are on the tower and we’re not permitted to inquire about what they’re doing, I’d say the citizens will need to rise up. The story also made me think about the mysterious sonic rays that have sickened the US embassy workers in Havana. I don’t think those people have responded to interview requests to find out just how sick they’ve been made. Actually, I think that it’s possible that journalists have been warned away from asking. Who’s aiming sonic beams at our Cuban embassy anyway? Why all the secrecy about the business on the mountain? I’m all stimulated to find out. Thanks for the article.

  4. Steven L Fornal

    Actually the 1996 Telecommunications Act does place limits on local zoning authorities vis-a-vis reviews. Only “major” modifications require local review. Here’s a short summary of the pertinent section (704); see page 8; Cellular Information.

    http://wireless.fcc.gov/fact1.pdf

    Remember, this is just a synopsis. The Act does define major modification (although not sure it clarifies quite enough…)

  5. Chris

    If the story is correct, it is a private lease transaction between the owner of the tower(s) and whomever they are leasing space to. Why should the public be entitled to that information? Should you know the content of any leases I or anyone else have between private parties?

  6. Louise D'almoncaourt

    Paranoia will destroy ya…famous lyrics and oh-so-true.

    I guess I can drive past someone’s barn or shed or machine shed every day,
    start thinking and wondering and imagining what’s inside and start demanding
    the private owner tell me?

  7. Steph K.

    Oh my goodness, another ‘local’ who’s fearful of ‘outsiders’ getting all crazy on us. You folks need to get out a little more. There is absolutely nothing in Woodstock or surrounding areas that is of interest to anyone who’s going to spy their little eye on you. Crazy.

  8. Ken

    Seriously? Why do you care? If you’re so interested, go learn something about the hardware you’re freaking out about. There are far more interesting and important topics to cover than your own ignorance. I feel like somebody is trying to justify their job…

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