New Paltz’s town planning board decided August 24 to hold off voting on a determination of environmental significance for the Jansen Road cell phone tower project after Homeland Towers representative Vincent Xavier offered to bring more information to the September 14 meeting. The board has questions about the impacts on wildlife from the proposed tree-clearing at 60 Jansen Road to erect the 150-foot tower.
Cellular towers are regulated by federal laws that put constraints on local authority, including a time limit of 150 days from when the complete application is filed to when the final building permit is issued. That so-called “shot clock” can be extended, but there’s already some dispute as to whether it’s started ticking or not. Homeland Towers attorney Robert Gaudioso believes it has, and will run down on November 10. Planning board attorney Rick Golden has taken the position that the application isn’t complete until the town’s wireless consultant, Mike Musso, says it’s complete.
The board is trying to determine whether the environmental impacts — including noise, light, wildlife and more amorphous categories like community character — can be deemed significant, which would trigger a more extensive environmental assessment. Guidance from the state sets the bar quite high for these impacts.
One question that remains up in the air is the fate of the endangered Indiana bat. Board member Amanda Gotto said that she was struck by the number of smaller trees to be killed and removed during construction, and wondered how those creatures would fare. The prevailing opinion from state officials is that trees should be cut down only when the bats are hibernating. The assumption is that destroying their summer homes while they’re away means that they’ll effortlessly find another roosting spot, while doing so while they are in residence would actually pose a problem for the species. What types of trees do these bats select for this roosting and nesting behavior? , and whether those are the species marked for death or not. Attorney Gaudioso is of the opinion that it’s more reasonable to look at the number of condemned trees as a proportion of all trees on the property.
Jane Schanberg thought that the height of the tower — more than double that of nearby trees and taller even than the faculty tower on campus — should be considered a moderate-to-large impact per the standards of the State Environmental Quality Review act, but it appears its slender shape will make it hard to spot at any distance. According to Golden, seeing such a structure for a few seconds while driving by doesn’t necessarily meet the standard set forth. “You’d need a rationale” to justify such a finding, the attorney said.
The tower would be visible to some extent from the Mohonk Preserve, but from closer and more local cultural resources — the Wallkill Valley rail-trail, Historic Huguenot Street — it won’t be able to be seen, according to digital renderings.
While federal law supports getting these decisions in a timely manner, this particular application faces the higher bar of a use variance, which will be decided at the zoning board of appeals, where the application is on the September 16 agenda. Golden has said that these are particularly difficult to justify, but if ZBA members do grant it, then it will be as if this particular tower is an allowed use in this residential district, and planning board members must review it with that in mind.