New Paltz Town Planning Board members have agreed that setting up a balloon test is the best next step in the complex process of reviewing a cell tower application. The 150-foot-tall tower is proposed to be constructed on nearly 45 acres located at 60 Jansen Road in New Paltz that are owned by Raymond D. Schilke III. Two four-foot-wide balloons will be hoisted for six hours on Saturday, March 14, weather permitting: one at the proposed height and another lower down for the sake of comparison.
Reviews of this type of application is constrained by federal regulations, but Planning Board members still get a say in the visual and other environmental impacts. As this site is far from the overlay zone along the Thruway that’s laid out in the local zoning code, a use variance will also be needed for this to be approved. The application for that variance has been filed with the Zoning Board of Appeals secretary.
The location and height for the tower are determined by how many more users will be served given the topography, as well as the sites that are available for lease. Those justifications are to be reviewed by Mike Musso, an engineer specializing in the laws and science of cellular technology. He did not have a formal memo prepared for the February 24 Planning Board meeting, as in his opinion the application cannot yet be deemed complete. That’s a term which carries added weight for a cell tower, because once an application is complete, the decision must be rendered within 150 days, a concept industry insiders call a “shot clock.” If no decision is reached in that time and an extension is not granted by the applicant, the applicant could instead file a federal court case to seek an order compelling board members to hurry it up.
Board attorney Richard Golden believes this application cannot be deemed complete unless and until the use variance is granted, because without that variance the application cannot be granted. He characterized use variances as “almost impossible to get,” but noted that the standards are relaxed to some extent when it comes to utilities. Consultants for Homestead Towers — the company contracted to erect this cell tower to fill in a Verizon coverage gap — disagree with that assessment, but all agree that it’s unlikely to ever be a point of contention. That’s because extensions are likely to be granted as long as it’s clear progress is being made, and also because the time and expense of going to court is not likely to actually hurry anything up regardless.
The balloons will be hoisted for six hours, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Timing is important: board members want it on a weekend to maximize the number of people who can see and comment on it, and putting them up before the trees bud will show just how visible the tower could be in winter. However, it’s also dependent on the weather. If winds are forecast to hit 8 mph, the test will be put off to Sunday, or the following Saturday if the conditions persist. During those six hours, photos will be taken from a number of locations in New Paltz, with the consultants for Homestead Towers adding more even during that time. At no point in the discussion has visual impacts from any location outside the town line ever been raised by any board member or any of their consultants.
Musso said that a color map highlighting likely visibility locations inside town lines (a copy of which was not publicly posted on the town’s web site as of press time, but may be available by contacting the Planning Board secretary) is “sophisticated,” but that the photographs taken during the balloon test will verify those data. Once compiled, simulations of the proposed tower will be inserted in the images. The tower is designed to have additional capacity that could be used to boost service of other carriers, and the simulations will presume that it’s built out to the maximum. Adding machinery for another transmitter does require another Planning Board approval, but those are typically granted with little or no scrutiny by members of the public, unlike the attention the building of a new tower might receive. Musso suggested the lower balloon because he wants to be certain that the height of 150 feet is really necessary. He may also ask for alternative designs, such as the fake tree concept, which he maintains is superior in some contexts.
In addition to other complexities, this site has an acre of wetlands and the project will encroach into the hundred-foot buffer prescribed in town law. A review by the town wetlands inspector will be ordered right away, as a wetlands permit would also need to be issued for this application to be approved.
Board members voted to classify this as a Type 1 action under state environmental laws and to circulate notice of intent to assume lead agency status for purpose of coordinating the environmental review. The steps of the bureaucratic dance will preclude a decision on the variance being made until the environmental review is complete, with the Planning Board application itself not being decided until the variance decision is rendered. No public hearing is required, but board members indicated their desire to hold one, agreeing to set the date after the results of the balloon test are available.