“We have now moved past the controversy,” said Paul Colucci at the Gardiner Planning Board’s October 26 meeting, as he and his colleagues moved forward with plans to permit Wireless Edge, LLC to construct the Town’s second cellular tower, at 630 South Mountain Road. But perhaps the board chair was being overoptimistic; in Gardiner, a development proposal that reaches fruition without contentious public debate is a rare occurrence indeed.
As Colucci acknowledged, the Town’s history of considering cell tower proposals has already been plagued with rancor and long delays. The first such attempt in 2011, to erect a tower on municipally owned property on Route 44/55 adjacent to Town Hall, resulted in an Article 78 lawsuit by the owners of the Gardiner Airport, who were alarmed about the possibility of small aircraft or skydivers colliding with the structure. There were also issues with wetlands being too close by. By the end of 2012, Wireless Edge had withdrawn its application.
In 2013, the Rhinebeck-based communications company submitted its second proposal: to build a cell tower on property owned by Wright’s Farm, located on the east side of Route 208. That too engendered considerable controversy, specifically with regard to the request to exceed the 120-foot height limit specific in Gardiner’s zoning code. A tower 150 feet tall was ultimately approved in 2014; construction got underway the following year, and cell service from both AT&T and Verizon was fully operational by 2016.
However, that existing tower is situated near the Town’s eastern borders, and phone service to much of Gardiner – not only to its westernmost neighborhoods, but even in the downtown hamlet – remains notoriously spotty. Colucci may be correct in his surmise that customers have run out of patience with the current situation and will not oppose the project quite so vociferously as past proposals.
The Planning Board, at any rate, voted unanimously to move it forward, declaring itself lead agency for State Environmental Quality Review, referring the proposal to the Ulster County Planning Board and scheduling a public hearing for Tuesday, December 21 at 7 p.m. Alternate member Robert Boettcher stepped in to replace Carol Richman, who recused herself because she will be a member of the Town Board by the time that body is considering Wireless Edge’s request for a Special Use Permit in January.
The South Mountain Road site is the property of the Town of Gardiner, used for storage of Highway Department supplies and equipment. Municipally owned sites are generally preferred by towns for siting cell towers, because they generate new revenue streams and ease the burden on taxpayers, since the lease fees paid by the cellular companies revert back to the landowner. However, the 381-foot altitude of the proposed site, on the flanks of the Shawangunk Ridge, has already drawn some opposition: In the meeting’s “privilege of the floor” segment, Gardiner Environmental Conservation Commission member Roberta Clements questioned why the Town Board was favoring this location over the previously considered Town Hall site.
Gardiner zoning code sets a basal elevation limit of 400 feet above sea level on cell tower sites, according to Colucci, meaning that the proposed location is permissible. But some citizens may join Clements in expressing concern about the tower’s potential visual impact. At the Planning Board meeting, Wireless Edge’s attorney, Robert Gaudioso of Snyder & Snyder, LLP, proposed that his client conduct a balloon test, analyze the photographic results and share them with the Board in advance of its December meeting. The test is scheduled to take place on Saturday, November 13 or the next subsequent weekend day that weather permits, excluding Thanksgiving weekend.
Concerns about the visual impact of cell towers usually focus on excessive height and intrusive visibility, especially with regard to the flashing lights that are required to ward off low-flying aircraft at night. But a couple of Gardiner residents reacting to the news on social media actually suggested that the top of the Ridge might be a preferable location, offering line-of-sight coverage to a broader swath of the township.
Asked in a Facebook group what parts of Gardiner needed better cell service, residents cited the following roads as getting “poor,” “terrible” or “horrible” reception: Hasbrouck, Guilford, Guilford Schoolhouse, Tall Pines, Bruynswick and parts of Dusinberre, Albany Post, Forest Glen and Route 44/55. Several people noted that they had no cellphone service at all outside the range of their home Wi-Fi units. Concerns about public safety, especially in terms of being able to reach first responders in the event of an emergency, topped the list of reasons cited by residents for supporting the cell tower project. Come December 21 at Town Hall, they will have their opportunity to make their positions known, pro or con.