The campaign to bring Verizon Wireless service to Shandaken is heating up. A change.org petition from Shandaken Town Clerk Joyce Grant to the NYS Public Service Commission and Governor Cuomo is, at this writing, closing in on a 1000-signature goal. Virtually every business in the bustling Shandaken hamlet of Phoenicia has a print version, too.
According to the petition: “Our citizens are vulnerable and highly at risk, especially during extended electrical outages. The state has designated the Route 28 Corridor as a Critical Corridor, especially during natural disasters. Residents, businesses and visitors in the Town should not be denied the same access and services that are readily available across NYS.”
At a February 3 Shandaken Town Board meeting, Supervisor Rob Stanley offered up resolution #52-20, which more deeply details the need for service, and, like Grant’s petition, asks the NYS Public Service Commission to “use their regulatory power” to force Verizon to take action. The bipartisan Board gave it unanimous support. Grant subsequently mailed copies to Ulster Co. Executive Pat Ryan, Sheriff Figueroa, Senator James Seward, and Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, among others. At the end of February, she plans to re-mail the resolution with copies of the online and print petitions, as well as the many comments on the online petition.
“I will follow up with phone calls,” she says. “And maybe personal visits.”
This is not the first time the scarcity of cell service in Shandaken’s 12 hamlets has been addressed. Former publisher of the now defunct Phoenicia Times and Chichester resident Brian Powers explained Verizon’s 2002 attempt to build a 192 ft. “Frankenpine” tower on private land behind the Phoenicia Diner: “The town had issued a permit with minimal public input,” he says. “We asked Verizon to guarantee it would provide service to the whole town, not just the Phoenicia area. They said they wouldn’t. We asked if a smaller tower would provide the same coverage for Phoenicia. They said yes, a 135 ft. tower would provide identical coverage that a 192 ft. tower would, but they refused to consider using a smaller tower. Many of us viewed the original proposal as massive in scale, an environmental eyesore. 174 Shandaken residents filed a lawsuit against it. We were ruled to have no standing to bring such an action. But for reasons Verizon never shared, they chose not to pursue the plan. Within a few years, Verizon removed all the payphones in the area, too.”
Powers, who lost a race for Town Supervisor in 2019, agrees cell service is crucial to the community and notes a subsequent plan for a series of five 70 ft. to 90 ft. towers was rejected by the Town Board of the day in favor of their plan to build a single tower at Glenbrook Park, which covers only a small portion of Shandaken for AT&T.
In the dead zone
Joyce Grant says repeated requests to Verizon to lease space on the Glenbrook Park tower have gone unheeded. Her petition points out Shandaken’s skyrocketing tourism industry, with 160,000 annual visitors to Belleayre alone. But as concerns for both visitors and year-round residents in the “dead zone” mount, Verizon remains unresponsive. The tagline on Grant’s petition is “Why Does Verizon Hate Shandaken?”
“When I was elected 8 years ago,” she says, “I made it my goal to offer more services to our citizens.” Indeed, Grant has set up a town-wide alert system, offered online tax bills, modernized the Town website, and invigorated the Town’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. She points out the Verizon network exists on each side of Shandaken, to Middletown to the west, and the Town of Olive to the east. The gap between those spots is 17 miles of no cell service. Shandaken is the only town along the Route 28 Corridor where one cannot make a cellphone call.
Grant is outraged. “The town ambulance has asked folks to provide locations of Verizon extenders so they can connect with hospitals via the internet to use life saving equipment!” she says. “And during outages, we’re all sitting ducks. I felt we needed to get the public involved.”
Businesses have taken up the cause. While he doesn’t relish the vision of folks walking the Phoenicia sidewalks barking into their phones, and/or texting while driving, lifelong resident and proprietor of Phoenicia Wines & Liquors Declan Feehan nevertheless agrees the need for safety is paramount. In addition to crashing his truck while plowing, and needing to walk a significant distance through a blinding snowstorm to get help, he, like many of his neighbors, has encountered real life-or-death situations. “On Woodland Valley Road [in Phoenicia] late one night,” he said, “I came upon a woman who’d hit a tree and flipped her car into a ditch. She was trapped inside. I left my truck with the lights flashing and had to run a half mile up the road before I found a house with a landline phone to call 911.”
Dave Pillard of Phoenicia’s Tenderland Home encourages both locals and tourists to sign the petition in his store. Both he and Feehan are in the Phoenicia Business Association, which will be sending letters to politicians, too. “Because of the technology, it’s not the polarizing issue it once was,” he says. “It doesn’t need to be a Frankenpine. You can put a box on a church steeple, or a fire tower. The topography is such that we’ll never have blanket coverage, but it can be addressed so much better now than 20 years ago.”
Grant is not so concerned about the look of the towers. “This is way past that,” she says. “Our emergency personnel have to knock on doors to use phones. That is not acceptable! This is not quaint anymore.”