While the issues are somewhat different this time from the proposal a decade ago to erect a cell tower on Town-owned property in Gardiner, once again, public opposition is stirring. The proximity of wetlands and a private airport led to the demise of a plan to site a transmission tower behind Town Hall back in 2012; these days, visual impact close to the Shawangunk ridgeline and uncertainties about the possible health effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields are much on the minds of opponents. Under the aegis of an ad hoc group styling itself Cell No, they’re mustering their arguments for a public hearing on the project scheduled for the January 25 Planning Board meeting.
The site in question, near the Gardiner Highway Department Garage on South Mountain Road, was already on municipal leaders’ radar as the likely location for a second cell tower during the battle over the Town Hall site, back during the Joe Katz administration. The Town’s first tower ended up being built on private land belonging to Wright’s Farm, just east of Route 208. But since it went online in 2016, many Gardinerites have complained that it provides spotty or nonexistent service in the western portions of the township, and that they cannot get a signal outside the range of their home Wi-Fi networks. Some have expressed worries about scenarios of not being able to call first responders in the event of an automobile accident on one of Gardiner’s more remote roads.
From the Town’s perspective, the best place for a cell tower is on Town-owned land, since cellular providers such as AT&T and Verizon must pay annual lease fees to the property-owner for the privilege of mounting their antennae atop a tower. This provides an additional income stream for the municipality that helps keep local tax rates down. At an altitude of 381 feet, the South Mountain Road site also offers the advantage of a broad transmission range while not exceeding the zoning code’s 400-feet-above-sea-level limit and lying outside Gardiner’s heavily protected SP zoning districts on the flanks of the Shawangunk Ridge. Being in the wrong type of zone can doom a municipally favored site, as occurred in January 2021 in Saugerties, when the Zoning Board of Appeals refused to grant a variance for a tower proposed for the grounds of the Mount Marion Firehouse.
Town officials and employees may be similarly split on the proposed Gardiner site, with some Highway Department staff reportedly unhappy with the prospect of working so close to an active cell tower. Current science on radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) indicates that radiation on the ground, even close to a tower, is dramatically lower than at the altitude of the antenna, and experts in the field point out that carrying a cellphone in one’s pocket poses far greater health risks than being in the proximity of a cell tower. That’s because the only documented health risk from mobile radiation is the heating of body tissues.
But long-term effects of low-level exposure to RF-EMF have been inadequately studied, opponents argue – especially with regard to 5G emissions, which are new on the scene. “I believe that, while there is no strong evidence for a carcinogenic role for 3G/4G waves in promoting cancer, more studies are needed. This is particularly true for 5G-associated RF waves,” wrote Jean Gautier in a letter to Town of Gardiner officials. A professor of Cancer Genetics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and leader of the Cancer Genomics and Epigenomics Program of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, Gautier lives on a parcel adjoining the proposed tower site on South Mountain Road. “I certainly would not want my family and the families of our neighbors to be irradiated 24 hours/day, seven days/week with RF waves of unknown hazard, and I would urge the Board to consider carefully the potential health risks associated with authorizing a mega-tower that will expose workers of [the] Gardiner Highway Department and local residents alike.”
Per Federal Communications Commission regulations, municipalities aren’t allowed to take perceived health threats to humans or wildlife into consideration as part of their permitting process for cell towers. Moreover, an Environmental Impact Statement is not required; a municipality may decide to conduct one, as New Paltz did this past summer for a cell tower proposed for Jansen Road, but it’s regarded as a highly unusual step. Visual impacts are fair game, however – an objection that cellular companies typically try to head off at the pass by conducting and analyzing balloon tests and submitting them to the Town as part of their applications. A proposed retrofit of an existing cell tower in Woodstock to accommodate 5G antennae was shot down last summer by the Planning Board on the grounds of negative visual impacts.
Many opponents of the tower in Gardiner proposed by Wireless Edge are basing their objections primarily on the issue of how a 110-foot tower at the base of the Ridge will impact a cherished viewshed and the area’s tourism appeal. Two of the vantagepoints shown in the applicants’ balloon-test photos to have a year-round view of the tower are located on the Bruynswick Winery property. Kiernan Farm on Bruynswick Road, rescued from development and preserved in 2011 by Gardiner’s Open Space Committee and now used as a wedding venue, also reportedly will have a clear view of the tower. “Marty Kiernan is furious,” Shaft Road resident Gabrielle Cody, a leader of the opposition group, told Hudson Valley One. “For him, it’s quality-of-life issue. The tower’s going to be right smack in front of him.”
In a letter to the Gardiner Planning Board, Cody’s wife and fellow organizer Sally Hansell questioned the accuracy of the balloon test photos, which can be viewed on the Town of Gardiner website via a link at www.townofgardiner.org/planning-board-agenda. “According to an architect friend, balloon studies are ‘outdated’ and Google Earth Pro can provide more accurate and interactive 3-D visuals. Wireless could have provided the Google Earth Pro 3-D renderings but chose not to,” Hansell noted. “Has anyone on the Planning Board asked for these?”
Both Hansell and Cody, as well as North Mountain Road resident Annie O’Neill, are also questioning the need for additional cellular service and whether the proposed tower will in fact remedy the geographical gaps within the township. “One of my main concerns is whether you have done studies to determine where the lack of cell service is in Gardiner and how this tower will address those dead spots,” O’Neill argued in her own letter to the Planning Board. “It seems to me you might have considered co-location on existing poles to address specific deficits in service…There could be alternative technologies that would be much less intrusive and could target whatever the perceived, but not pervasive, lack of service is in Gardiner. If Bruynswick Road has a dead spot, isn’t there a pole nearby to attach a current technological solution to solve such an issue?”
“In New York City, they use 32-to-36-foot towers where there is a serious gap, which means far less radiation,” Cody argued, predicting that installation of 5G antennae would be inevitable for the Gardiner tower. “They’re all touting 5G. It’s the new shiny object in the window.”
If this is Wireless Edge’s intent, that may preclude safe use of co-location sites in the long run, however. According to a June 2020 Investigate Europe article by Ingeborg Eliassen and Paulo Pena, 5G technology “is needed to sustain driverless cars, remote surgery, as well as smart cities and homes, including ultra-fast access to films and music. To achieve all this, the 5G network will also use the millimeter waves part of the frequency spectrum. These are low-power, short-range waves, unable to break through walls or other obstacles, such as trees. They can be directed individually, but they have to be relayed from a base station via small antennas to avoid obstacles and reach their destination. These stations will be small, the size of fire alarm boxes.
“This will compel data companies to place tens of thousands of these small base stations on street furniture, lampposts and on the exterior and interior of buildings. Currently, the 4G network uses fewer antennas, more powerful, further away from our daily lives, thanks to its longer transmission range. It is from the coming high number of antennas that some of the new fear of harmful effects of mobile radiation arises.”
The article concludes, as do so many scientists studying the subject in depth, that more research on the impacts of 5G is needed (though the consensus is clear that it’s not to blame for COVID, as some of the wilder conspiracy theories have alleged). Cell tower opponents in Gardiner concur, on many levels. Whether their concerns will deter approval of the proposed Highway Garage site is another question – perhaps to be answered at the Planning Board meeting that will already be over by the publication date of this article.
For more information about the organized opposition to the cell tower, visit www.cellno.org and www.facebook.com/groups/630695328197408. To view and sign a petition opposing the site, visit https://chng.it/7wf5kfdzpc.