The Chatham Township committee took no action during its Thursday meeting regarding T-Mobile’s proposal to build a temporary cell tower on a residential property, instead urging the company to find an alternative site.
T-Mobile had to construct a temporary tower on private property on 610 River Road for two years while the nearby PSE&G tower where T-Mobile’s antenna currently sits is renovated through PSE&G's North Central Reliability Project.
This is the final of the three towers T-Mobile is requesting as part of this process. The other two, which will be located at the Chatham Township Municipal Building and Colony Pool, have already been approved.
Representatives from T-Mobile were present at Thursday’s meeting to ask committee members to approve the company’s plan for the 610 River Road site. However, the committee members–three of five were present–and the more than 20 residents present were vocal in their disapproval.
By the end of the discussion, Richard Schkolnick, attorney for T-Mobile, retracted the request for the residential site and guaranteed T-Mobile would look further into other suggested sites, such as Esternay Field, before re-approaching the committee.
Problems with Residential Site
One of the major problems committee members had with placing a tower at 610 River Rd. is that the site has a conservation easement, legally enforces land preservation and which they stated was initiated to stop situations like this from happening.
Richard Schkolnick, attorney for T-Mobile, said there was some confusion about the easement because it was never formally reported.
Chatham Township Attorney Carl Woodward agreed that the terms of the easement had not been officially reported. However, Woodward said a map of all conservation easements was filed and could have easily been found.
“Also, I believe the homeowner [of 610 River Road] would have known about the conservation easement and should have been forthcoming about it,” committee member Kathy Abbott said.
Some residents said they had a problem with the perceived visibility of the tower from their houses.
Schkolnick said he didn’t see it as that big of an issue, especially since the tower will be temporary.
“If somebody can see the top of a cell tower for 18 months, it’s not that big of an issue,” he said. “There is 200 to 300 feet of disturbance and a tower through a forest of trees that one or two people might see if they stand out back.”
However, Stacy Ewald, who lives on Nicholson Drive, and other residents who spoke out stated that two years to them is not temporary.
Furthermore, Ciccarone advised T-Mobile not to work on the assumption, or use the argument, that the site will be temporary. He said he received word earlier in the week that there is no guarantee from PSE&G that phone carriers will be able to use the power company’s towers again once the North Central Reliability Project is completed.
Massa said T-Mobile signed its agreement with the 610 River Road homeowner on May 5. Massa said he was concerned that it took the company more than two months to approach the Zoning Board.
Considering Esternay Field
Schkolnick said, at the suggestions of Mayor Nicole Hagner, Woodward and Township Administrator Tom Ciccarone, T-Mobile had checked out Esternay Field as a possible location and determined that certain areas were either too high or too low to place a tower.
Earlier in the day, however, the township told T-Mobile it would be willing to put out a bid on an area of Esternay Field where a playground currently sits.
Schkolnick said that, upon review of that section of Esternay Field, tower placement seemed feasible and that he was “99 percent certain” the company could use the site.
However, he said it would require further review. Additionally, Schkolnick listed some other drawbacks, including needing to construct a 150-foot pole to allow the antennas to get high enough and increased visibility for more residents.
He also expressed uncertainty about access to power and phone lines. The 610 River Road site, he said, already has access to power and phone lines.
Township engineer John Ruschke responded that the tower could easily get power from nearby Fairmount Avenue.
Schkolnick eventually conceded that, if T-Mobile can get power to the site and install a generator, the company will spend the upcoming days vetting the site as a possibility.
When the committee asked members of the public their opinions on placing the tower at Esternay Field, most had similar responses.
“I would just like to see this thing go away,” Massa said. “I think it was wrong for them to approach a homeowner and do this without letting the appropriate people in the town know.”
Barbara Veeder, of 568 River Road, agreed saying a homeowner making a profit that harms the rest of the community doesn’t make any sense.
Hagner said the township had also previously suggested looking into the firehouse as a possible location for the third tower.
Schkolnick said T-Mobile had looked into the site but determined it was too far.
Schkolnick mentioned several times that T-Mobile would like to take action as soon as possible because all existing structures attached to PSE&G towers will be decommissioned on Sept. 21.
Committee members, however, quickly discarded the timing factor.
Mayor Nicole Hagner stated that, after several months of discussions regarding all three replacement towers, T-Mobile has had ample time and opportunities to vet other sites.
“You come in here tonight and talk about this timeline,” Hagner said. “It’s not really our issue.”
Schkolnick also suggested the Esternay Field site would require more than six months to build, which would place T-Mobile well beyond its decommission date and put them out of service for an extended period of time.
Ciccarone took Hagner’s sentiments one step further, saying it isn’t the township’s problem if that particular antenna is out of service for a few months.
Schkolnick quickly responded saying one might think differently if a family member needs to make a 911 call, referring back to his statement that the current tower in that area receives 20 such calls a month.
“You’re not going to play that fear card here, are you?” Ciccarone said, followed by applause from the members of the public opposing T-Mobile’s plan. “In terms of analyzing, how do we know the risk of really missing a 911 call?”
Schkolnick said he didn’t know completely, but that some of the calls would be directed to that site and, in return, be lost.
Massa made a point that if T-Mobile places a large emphasis on the 911 calls at the current site, they should place emphasis on them wherever the tower goes, even if the alternative site is less ideal.
Committee member Bailey Brower said he believes T-Mobile has done a poor job of planning this whole project and said he would “tell them to take a walk” if asked to vote on the residential site.
“If you have to put a generator on top of a whirligig [at Esternay Field or another alternative location] to make this thing work, I think that would be in your best interest,” Brower said.