Cell Tower Decision Leaves Out Neighbors

When Verizon sought to modify its Newhallville cell tower, it gave a head’s up to out-of-town landlords who own nearby properties. It didn’t notify tenants who actually live there.

That fact emerged during a passionate debate at the latest Zoom-assisted monthly meeting of the City Plan Commission, helmed by Chair Ed Mattison and City Plan staffer Stacey Davis. It raised broader questions about how neighbors get notified about pending public decisions that affect them.

At issue, during a public hearing, was approval of a special permit for Verizon to make minor modifications to its cell tower antennas and other equipment atop an industrial building at 89 Shelton Ave. in Newhallville, where the equipment has been since 2006.

At the end of an hour’s discussion, which took place this past Wednesday evening, the vote for approval was four to one in favor.

If the proposed changes were minor, the temper of the discussion was anything but.

The proposed work includes “replacement of nine antennas and six remote radio heads” in a modification that would not alter the look of the current facility or, testified Verizon’s lawyer Ken Baldwin, increase any of the hum that emanates from the transformer-like equipment beneath the antennas inside the top floor of the building.

However, is that hum “healthy?”

And could altering the equipment to carry 5G have health consequences?

Those questions were raised by a public commenter in the session, Chris Ozyck. And Ozyck, a longtime environmental justice advocate, lives on the east side of town, not in Newhallville

That raised an auxiliary but equally important issue for commissioners, especially the group’s vice chair, Leslie Radcliffe, who ultimately was the single no-vote in the decision.

The issue was notification.

She noted that neighbors turned out to question and ultimately defeat T-Mobile applications, in 2013, in Fairmont Park in Fair Haven Heights. And, later in 2019, for a telecommunications array in the steeple of the Pilgrim Church on Grand Avenue by the eastern access to the Grand Avenue Bridge.

But nobody from the streets of Newhallville appeared at Wednesday night’s meeting to ask serious questions about the 89 Shelton Ave. application.

Baldwin made clear that Verizon notified, as city ordinances require, all abutters within 200 feet of the towers. The facility complies with all safety concerns, which are the purview, not of the city, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), he added

“The FCC will shut us down if any of these facilities don’t comply with the safety standards,” Baldwin said

To that, Ozyck argued technology is progressing faster than the medical science.

There is a 500-foot notification for cell towers in other communities he has researched, Ozyck added. He urged City Plan commissioners to seek to change the rules to allow more distance, better notification, and fees “to help fund the oversight and analysis of these facilities.”

Radcliffe pressed further especially on the notification issue, because the ordinance requires letters be sent to abutters who are property owners, not renters.

“You can have a whole city block with no owners only renters, and none of those people would have received notification. You may not get a response from a property owner,” because often that is an out-of-town limited liability corporation (LLC) that “might not have concerns,” while the people who live there do.

Radcliffe pressed Baldwin if he had reached out to any of the local management teams or other grassroots groups to share the plans. He said he had not, in part because the ordinance doesn’t require it. He confirmed the only outreach was the mailing to property owners.

“We’re happy to comply with whatever requirements are set forth in the regulations, and you raise fair points,” Baldwin said to Radcliffe.

“Was there any outreach to the alder in the Newhallville area?” she pressed on.

“We did not reach out to Alder [Steven] Winter,” said Baldwin. “This is a minor modification to a facility that’s been there for 14 years.”

Two public commenters were present, including Alder Winter.

“I did hear from a couple of folks who were concerned about this cell tower upgrade and the health implications in particular,” he testified.

Winter called Ozyck’s concerns “spot on. I wanted therefore to second that suggestion and flag that concern.”

A contrary view was expressed by local attorney Ben Trachten, who was on the Zoom meeting for another matter.

“I am a Verizon customer and would like to speak in support of the applicant. They have satisfied all requirements for abutters and none of the issues that the other speakers brought up pertain. As a Verizon customer and as a citizen, this will help us as the technology changes in our community,” Trachten said.

Before the final vote was taken, City Plan Director Aicha Woods and Chair Mattison brought the discussion back to the macro view.

Referencing his own work on behalf of the city on this issue when he was deputy corporation counsel, Mattison said, “The Congress of the United States said that they wanted to have a national policy with regard to safety and health issues, and they said localities could not deny applications on the basis of local concerns for health and safety. Only the FCC and Congress have the power to change rules. I’m not defending that decision, but that’s legally the case.”

“We are looking at how we can review our ordinances,” added Woods, “but we are limited by the FCC rules and specifically regarding health effects we’re bound by them now.”

Before the final vote, Radcliffe returned to Baldwin with one final appeal. She asked if Verizon could “put a pin in it and a pause to share information now and perhaps provide an environmental impact statement” that might be reviewed before the modification.

“There is some urgency as relates to this application,” Baldwin replied. “We’re happy to work with the commission and staff to develop new standards and requirements going forward but would ask you not to impose it on us retroactively. As Ben Trachten said, we are eager to roll out this new technology to make it available to the citizens of New Haven.”

“I would by no means want to impose retroactively,  and I thank you for your answer,” Radcliffe replied.

The aldermanic representative to the commission, Adam Marchand. echoed Radcliffe’s concerns: “The city knocks on doors, uses phone banks to notify residents of the availability of vaccines. There are many more ways than sending certified letters to an LLC in New York that might not even be the right address! We should look to a way to update that the commission might have a role in that and I’d be glad to talk to my colleagues on the Board of Alders.”

In the end Radcliffe was the only commissioner who concluded that notification, and its lapses, were a sufficient basis for a no vote.

“I will stand by that insufficient notification. Had the residents been informed, I think it’s very possible there would have been a lot of turnout similar to Fair Haven Heights. That matter had a wholly different outcome. Given the opportunity in Newhallville they would have turned out; they do care about their neighborhood. I’m passionate about that. I am also very disturbed that not only do we have the opportunity to do better in the future, we can do better today. For those reasons I cannot and will not support this,” she said.

Before the three-hour meeting concluded, commissioners engaged in their annual requirement to vote officers. Ed Mattison said serving as chair for nearly a dozen years was satisfying but also sufficient. The commissioners voted Radcliffe and Mattison to swap positions, with Mattison serving now as vice chair and Radcliffe taking the helm.

These votes were unanimous. The other commissioners participating included Ernest Pagan, Elias Estabrook, and alternate Kevin DiAdamo.

posted by: ge.wat_NYC on February 22, 2021  2:26pm

posted by: robn on February 22, 2021 12:50pm
Nuclear bomb blasts and x-ray machines give off high frequency, ionizing radiation and can cause cancer.

Communication devices (and microwave ovens BTW) give off low frequency, non-ionizing radiation which doesn’t cause cancer.

Only asking because I’ve been working in the defense industry for over 30 years, and our avionics techs would get a great laugh out of that one !!

Tell you what, when I was a volunteer firefighter – we went from VHF to UHF, the radios got smaller and the first generation radios had the antennas in the microphones.

That went away real quick – due to the known hazards of RF energy and our eyes.

[I won’t go into what happens above 800mhz…..]

It’s mind boggling how everyone is crapping themselves over this Covid 19 insanity – yet nobody is worried about the alarming rate of cancer and eye disorders, which funny enough did not really start to take off in numbers here until recently – say 15 years or so… thanks to our ever increasing use of wireless digital technology….

posted by: NH06515 on February 22, 2021  7:04pm

We have a set of rules and the applicant followed them. If you don’t like the rules, get them changed through the legislative process.  Being a Commissioner doesn’t allow you to make up rules and subject applicants to them. Or claim that more is required. Or to pressure the applicant to table his matter.

To delay for the applicant to engage with who? Mystery tenants? Management team? Alders? The “neighborhood” whatever that is. City officials. The environmental coalition of one bearded guy who participated? Really, who?

These games ruin the credibility of the process.  And to do it to a company that many of us rely on for critical communication; unforgivable.

If there is enough demand for notice our elected representatives will pass new legislation. I just think no one cares. We want reliable cell service. We don’t want to sit through 3 hour meetings with 2 real agenda items to hear one comment from a “know it all” environmentalist with bad facts but endless conjecture.

How is Ed Matteson still a board member? Aren’t there limits? 12 years. How does this happen? He’s bright and experienced but some new blood is certainly needed.

I hope NHI posts the entire meeting so everyone can see what an appalling display of double standards apply to certain matters that are not controversial to 99 percent of residents.

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