Proposed cell tower gets new lease

Despite stalled talks, vigorous option, Pine Island Fire Department and AT&T extend land contract for a year

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— The Pine Island Fire District's Board of Commissioners has agreed to extend AT&T's lease on a prospective 150-foot cell phone tower site at the firehouse through May 2015.

The fire commissioners voted 3-1 on July 10 to grant New Cingular Wireless's request to extend its lease for a second year. Approval included a request for AT&T subsidiary New Cingular Wireless to make a $20,000 "initial payment" to the PIFD's "escrow fund."

The lease extension comes despite a standstill in negotiations between the district and New Cingular Wireless, which approached the PIFD last year with a proposal to erect a 150-foot cell phone tower in a fenced complex it will lease at the firehouse. They signed a two-year lease with the district last May.

The lease agreement would generate anywhere from $24,000 to $96,000 a year in rental income for the district, which borrowed $3 million in a 30-year bond in 2008 to build its firehouse.

The proposed cell phone tower has been vigorously opposed by many Pine Island residents - especially those who live in the immediate vicinity of the Pulaski Highway/County Route 1 crossroads - who cite concerns about health effects from exposure to cell tower radio frequency (RF) waves on the 25 children who live within 300 yards of the firehouse, devalued home values and the visual blemish of a 150-foot pole looming above the Black Dirt hamlet.

With the firehouse proposal hotly contested and negotiations stalled with the fire district, AT&T submitted a proposal to the Warwick Valley School District to build a 120-foot tall cell phone tower at Pine Island Elementary School, which has been closed for several years.

However, in late June, the Warwick Valley School District Board of Education opted to discontinue discussions with the telecom giant during a straw poll conducted after a 20-minute presentation by AT&T and before fielding comments from nine area residents who all opposed the proposal.

The school board's withdrawal from cell tower discussions essentially put the ball back in the PIFD's court.

Warwick Town Superintendent Michael Sweeton said last week the town board is still waiting for the PIFD to present its justifications for being declared "lead agency" in the state-mandated environmental study of the cell tower proposal.

Usually, a proposed freestanding cellular tower would need to be approved by the Town Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). But because the fire district is a government agency, it may not be subject to the town's land use laws if it can answer a nine-point test - the "Monroe Test" - developed by the state's Supreme Court to determine the viability of an entity's jurisdiction.

Sweeton said the PIFD has not provided the town with its responses to the "Monroe Test."

- John Haughey

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