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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 12, 2009

Towering concern shakes up Berne

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — Some residents, along with the town supervisor, are up in arms about the recent approval of a cell tower in East Berne. A petition is circulating, demanding that the town bring all work on the project to an immediate halt.

Concerns voiced at last night’s town board meeting are detailed in letters to the Enterprise editor this week, outlining specific issues with town government and its approval process for Verizon’s application to build a tower on Long Road.

“I was there at the [zoning board of appeals] meeting,” said Supervisor Kevin Crosier this week, referring to the Feb. 18 public hearing on Verizon’s cell tower application, “and I can tell you, I was extremely disappointed in their lack of attention to the town residents during the public hearing.”

Members of the zoning board stated at the beginning of that hearing that they were Verizon customers, but that they saw no conflict of interest, according to minutes from the meeting.

Once the audience left the town board meeting last night, the board went into executive session to discuss whether or not it could take some form of legal action with regard to the discontent over the Long Road cell tower.

“Hard look”

Some residents, like Sally Meduna of Long Road, have said that the town failed to take a “hard look” at Verizon’s plans. Planning Board Chairman Gerard Chartier disagrees, reminding these residents that Verizon’s application was made last July, and was not approved until February, meaning the process stretched across more than seven months.

“I personally called some of the abutters on the phone, and I didn’t have to do that,” Chartier told The Enterprise of landowners with property adjacent to the tower site.

Chartier weighed in last night on each of the four bullet-points on the petition that has been making its way around town, the first of which states that “the applicant representing Verizon was not required to answer questions from Berne residents regarding the apparent lack of documentation that the proposed project is consistent with Federal Aviation Administration guidelines for projects near airports.”

To this, Chartier replied, “I honestly wonder if these complainants actually read the application material, because the application includes a whole section dealing with FAA requirements and the airport located in East Berne,” referring to the Helderberg Airstrip.

“Verizon had a couple of consultants working on the project, and one of them is a company called Jeppesen, out of Atlanta, Georgia, that is pretty well known in aeronautics,” Chartier said. “They were hired to review any potential conflicts of the siting with airports, and, in their first sentence, they say the study was conducted in accordance with [Federal Aviation Regulations].”

Jeppeson’s report is part of the original application, dated July 9, 2008, copies of which were available at the Berne library and town clerk’s office, and were distributed to all members of the town board, the planning board, and the zoning board of appeals, Chartier said.

“Obviously, you don’t want to build a tower if it’s going to endanger air traffic,” he said. “That report discussed air safety in reference to all the sites Verizon had looked at. [The report] was part of the application, and the planning board discussed every aspect of the application with the applicants.”


The petition goes on to state that “the amount of disturbed area associated with the proposed project will actually well exceed one acre. This project would therefore require a New York State Pollution Discharge Elimination System [SPDES] permit.”

Of the claim that the disturbed area exceeds one acre, Chartier said, “That simply isn’t true.”

One resident concerned about the project is Joel Willsey, who works for the New York State Department of Transportation. “We have to estimate our areas of disturbance for all of our projects, too,” said Willsey. “It’s just a little suspicious, because it’s real tempting, when you’re involved in one of these projects, to underestimate a little bit so you don’t have to go through the permit process. We’ve been accused of trying to avoid permits like that,” he said.

Further, Willsey said in a letter to the Enterprise editor, “I can say from experience that you cannot estimate the area disturbed by a project that size with .03-acre accuracy.”

The disturbed area for the project is now listed at .97 acres.

“I think they’re grasping at straws here,” Chartier said of the complainants. “Originally, the application would have disturbed more than one acre, and we pointed out to the applicant that we would want a storm-water pollution prevention plan — the threshold for that is one acre,” he said.

“If it’s more than a one-acre disturbance, you have to apply for a general permit for soil disturbance,” Chartier said. “[Verizon is] being very careful about what they do on that site, so, given the threshold, they will not require a general permit. But the plans still include erosion and sediment control,” he said.

“The problem is that, when you get precipitation, snow melt in the spring or rain in the summer, and you have a contractor on a building site, rain displaces the soil, and soil runs off into the stream,” Chartier went on. “So, these plans have all the erosion and sediment control practices on there.”

The point, Chartier said, is, “Even though they’re not required to get this permit, it doesn’t mean they’re not going to do anything to prevent pollution.”

Radio waves

The petition goes on to express a fear of “microwave radio frequency radiation” emitted by the tower.

“Now that’s an interesting statement, because they’re confusing microwaves and radio waves,” Chartier said. “Microwaves are what you find in that oven on your countertop; radio waves are how towers communicate with cell phones — and it’s a very low-power signal. People thought that, since the tower was close to houses, it would be a public health problem. Verizon hired a professional engineer who is an expert in these matters, and his report is part of the same application.”

Chartier thinks that some of these residents may be misled by their own research.

“Some of the people who object to the tower searched the Internet and read some books, and they concluded that it was an issue to them,” he went on. “But what I have, as chair of the planning board, is a report from a professional engineer.” That engineer is Paul Dugan of Millennium Engineering, PC, he said.

“What he did was he calculated what the emissions would be from the tower when it was fully operational,” Chartier said. Dugan’s report, he added, concluded that “the composite exposure of the proposed communications facility will be substantially below 1 percent of the exposure limits.”

What Dugan referred to here, Chartier said, were exposure limits set up by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, which he described as “a formally recognized, non-government organization in non-ionizing radiation for the World Health Organization and the International Labor Office.”

Negative declaration

The petitioners are concerned further that “the Berne ZBA did not adequately evaluate compliance with the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act [SEQRA]. We are further concerned that the applicant representing Verizon drafted a declaration of negligible environmental impact on behalf of the Berne ZBA.”

A document prepared by Verizon’s legal representation at Young, Sommer, Ward, Ritzenberg, Baker & Moore, LLC, includes a negative declaration, written from the perspective of the town, that reads “the zoning board of appeals of the town of Berne, Albany County, acting as lead agency in this uncoordinated SEQRA review, hereby concludes that an environmental impacts statement will not be required for the public utility communications facility proposed.” A project is given a negative declaration if it is determined it will not have an adverse environmental impact.

“I could see their point,” Chartier said of the petitioners.

“SEQRA requires a local board with jurisdiction to make an independent assessment and a declaration, as far as the environmental impact of a proposed project, before it takes option to approve that project,” Chartier explained. “Because this variance application was before the zoning board, it was the zoning board’s responsibility to make that assessment. But, the planning board, even though it was not required to make that assessment, did review Verizon’s document that is referred to in the petition…In terms of the due diligence of the planning board, we had looked at it thoroughly before it went, by our recommendation, to the zoning board.”

Still, the issue of visual impact, as with the construction of any tower, is a contentious one, and Supervisor Crosier is dissatisfied with the work of the planning and zoning boards. “Not as the supervisor, but as a resident,” Crosier told The Enterprise. “I feel like they were more interested in helping Verizon than looking out for the town’s best interests.”

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