CAZENOVIA — On Nov. 22, the Town of Cazenovia Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) considered a use variance application from Tucker and Lisa Lounsbury and Blue Sky Towers III, LLC/Verizon for the purpose of installing a 150-foot telecommunications tower (pole plus antenna) off Cobb Hill Road in Cazenovia.
“The legal standard for our normal use variance is not what is applicable here tonight,” explained Town Attorney John Langey. “There is a special standard that is applied because they are deemed to be a public utility by the federal government. So, the burden on the applicant is to demonstrate a need for the tower — to show that there is either a gap or weakness in the coverage that they have. That’s their burden. Then the zoning board can make inquiries as to the environmental impacts of the project, as well as whether this is the best location or there are other locations that the applicant should consider, and whether the height is appropriate for the need — if they can demonstrate that need.”
ZBA Chairman Tom Pratt invited Jared Lusk, of the law firm Nixon Peabody LLP, to present the proposed project to the board.
Donna Love, of Blue Sky Towers, and Michael Montalto, project manager at Costich Engineering, were also in attendance as representatives of the applicant.
According to Lusk, the purpose of the Cobb Hill facility is to provide an adequate and safe level of emergency and non-emergency Verizon Wireless 4G communication services across underserved areas within the western portion of the Town of Cazenovia.
“More specifically,” Lusk said, “the facility will offer significant improvements in both coverage and [capacity] for the network to adequately satisfy the demand for high-speed wireless services to the suburban neighborhoods and rural communities in and around the Cobb Hill area and the town, specifically including 1.4 miles along County Route 13, 1.1 miles along Cobb Hill Road, 1.8 miles along Ballina Road, as well as a few other local rural community roads.”
Lusk added that the coverage area he described has been targeted not because it does not have any coverage, but because the coverage it has is unreliable.
He also stated that, in addition to providing adequate and reliable service, the project would relieve some of the “traffic” on the surrounding towers.
“[The latest statistics that I have say that] between 2017 and 2018, the amount of data on these systems went up 65 percent,” Lusk said. “It’s an ever-expanding problem. The same area that could have been covered years ago by one tower now needs to be covered by two or three, just [because of the] volume of traffic that is being generated by all of our ‘smart devices’. . . Here, we have two problems. We have both the capacity problem, and we have the coverage. There is not adequate coverage in this hole. So, our purpose is to fill this hole and to relieve traffic that is being covered . . . by the surrounding towers.”
According to Lusk, a tower shorter than 150 feet could not adequately fill the “coverage hole.”
The attorney next provided an overview of the applicant’s site selection report.
He began by explaining that the search area included 11 properties. Eight of the property owners either did not respond to certified letters or said they were not interested, while three property owners had expressed interest in leasing their land to Blue Sky for Verizon.
The approximately 21-acre Lounsbury property was selected for several reasons.
“The property is located inside the search ring — basically towards the middle — and is large enough to accommodate the required setbacks of the tower and property lines and adjacent residential structure,” Lusk said. “The owner expressed interest, and [the parcel was the] primary candidate selected by the [ radio frequency (RF) engineer], due to its topography, measurement above sea level, and, from a siting perspective again, [because] it meets the setbacks, offers natural screening due to the dense vegetation, and has an existing driveway that serves the house and [horse] barn. The existing driveway will be used all the way to beyond the barn on the back side, so there will be no cutting of any trees from the public way all the way back to the tower site.”
Lusk added that the driveway would be extended across the gas line for use as a service road to the tower site.
The galvanized tower pole would be accompanied by a 2 x 4-foot locked equipment cabinet positioned on a 4 x 8-foot concrete slab.
“There are no climbing pegs [on the pole] within 20 feet of the ground, and there’s a seven-foot fence with barbed wire,” Lusk noted.
Construction would take one to three months (weather permitting), after which the facility would be monitored remotely and visited an average of once or twice a month.
The entire tower compound, which Lusk described as an “unmanned public utility structure,” would be surrounded by a stand of existing 40- to 60-foot-tall trees.
Lusk informed the board that a diesel-powered generator would [run] for 15 minutes once a week and operate during power outages.
“The generator is very similar to what you would have in a residential facility.” Lusk said. “. . . It’s no louder than a window air conditioner. . . It does generate noise, [but it’s] not above ambient levels.”
The only proposed light fixture is a gooseneck LED light positioned to illuminate the equipment cabinet. If a technician was required to work in low-light conditions, the timer switch would turn on. After 30 minutes, the light would turn off automatically.
The ZBA next inquired about potential opportunities for cell tower co-location — the use of one structure to mount or deploy mobile telecommunications antennas belonging to more than one wireless service provider within a single location.
Langey asked if it would be possible for Verizon to co-locate on a tower that is already servicing other carriers.
“[It’s routine] that people co-locate on the same tower,” responded Lusk. “It happens a lot where it is possible. [However,] there is not a tower in this search area. . . It’s a lot cheaper to co-locate on an existing facility than it is to build a new tower. Verizon would be co-locating on a tower if it was available. We need to be in that search ring at a height that delivers service into that area to cover [the] gap.”
Pratt said he had significant reservations about positioning the tower within a viewshed area, and he expressed his desire to see a second balloon test in order to evaluate the visual impact of the pole and antenna.
According to Langey, a range of potential dates for the balloon test will be posted on the Town of Cazenovia website. Preference will be given to a Saturday float date.
The exercise will include two balloons, the higher of which is referred to as a “tracer balloon.” The lower balloon will float 150 feet above the ground to show the top of the tower antenna.
“I know it’s not realistic in many ways because it’s just a little dot up in the sky,” Langey said. “It’s hard to imagine it, but then the applicant creates photo simulations of what it looks like from different vantage points.”
The photo simulations will be on file with the town and available for public viewing.
Town Engineer John Dunkle suggested that the town retain an outside RF engineer, at the applicant’s expense, to review the report submitted by the applicant’s RF engineer and to independently evaluate the need for the tower and whether alternative sites exist that would be less visually impactful.
Dunkle also requested that the applicant supply a letter/documentation from the gas line owner stating that they approve of the proposed road across the line.
“I don’t disagree that the maintenance traffic is going to be light, but we are going to have big crane trucks and concrete trucks up there while we build it,” Dunkle said.
Following the discussion, the board opened a public hearing on the use variance application.
The board heard from several individuals who live in the vicinity of the proposed tower site and are opposed to the project.
Dr. Mary McGrath, who owns property on Burlingame Road and recently purchased Eleanor Chard’s Cobb Hill Road property with her daughter and son-in-law, commented that neither she nor her husband, Dr. Stuart Singer, have ever experienced problems with cell phone coverage.
“My husband and I are both physicians who take calls at night, during the weekends, and on holidays, and we completely rely on our cellphones,” McGrath said. “I have used both Verizon and AT&T over the last 21 years we’ve lived here and have never had a problem with coverage. . . So, from our practical perspective, there is not a [problem.]”
McGrath also voiced her concerns regarding the impact of the tower on the “pristine, unspoiled beauty” of the Burlingame/Cobb Hill area and the potential ecological effects of such development.
“We’ve had a member of the Audubon Society and a forester come review all of [our] lands for us, and they both emphasized how important it is to preserve this type of landscape,” she said. “The diversity of the area right in that spot is unmatched, and once it is gone, it’s not going to come back again.”
Gary Leshkivich, whose land is adjacent to the Lounsbury property, stated that the proposed service road would run right along his property line.
“I’m going to hear traffic at all hours of the night, whenever it may be, to service the tower,” Leshkivich said. “I moved out to the country for a little serenity, the peace, the quiet, the ambiance.”
He also remarked that for over 20 years, his property has been “basically forever wild,” and that the tower would be positioned directly in his view.
“Every morning, I get up and I look at the beauty, the wildlife, the geese that are landing on the ponds on the old Chard estate,” he said. “All of this, I’ve become accustomed to, and all the neighbors have [too]. . . Now, as I walk out into my backyard, I’m going to see a basic tower, because that property where he is putting that is right in my back yard, right in my view.”
Randy Nash, who stated that his entire property is within the “target for improvement,” recommended that the town’s RF consultant conduct a study of two existing 80-foot silos that are part of the scenic landscape and that he believes could potentially serve the area that Verizon is hoping to cover.
He also recommended that a survey be conducted of the approximately 70 households within the target area defined by the applicant.
“If they are concerned about those people having service, it would be a pretty simple survey to see if people are happy or unhappy,” Nash said. “. . . Personally, I don’t believe that the tower people are concerned about covering that area; what they are concerned with is getting a tower in the air to have five other carriers on it, which is perfectly logical. There isn’t a person in this room probably, except for me, that doesn’t own a cellphone . . . Towers have to go up. It’s just a matter of where they go. To me, the problem is the process of the cellphone people finding a private individual to do it and then presenting it as ‘Here, take it or leave it.’ It should be a program where they work with the town [and] say, ‘We have to put it up, where’s the best place to put it?’ This place, I don’t believe is the best place for it.”
Eric Knapp, of Rippleton Road, Micael Speirs, of Burlingame Road, and Brendan Rigby, of Cobb Hill Road, all remarked that the tower would directly impact their views and that they have not personally experienced any issues with their cell service.
Rigby, the son-in-law of McGrath and Singer, also stated that the map produced through the applicant’s coverage gap study is low resolution and impossible to discern.
“I do think that we need to spend more time investigating alternative sites,” Rigby said “. . . I’m not sure how looking at that [map, Mr. Lusk] can claim that it decisively tells you that the silos aren’t in this coverage gap, because I can’t frankly. I think we need more information, and I don’t think we are in a position to make such an important decision.”
Additionally, Rigby expressed his concerns regarding construction on the gas line.
“None of the professional engineering plans that I saw submitted had any kind of detail about how they are going to avoid the kind of dangers you would expect when you run cranes over a high-pressure gas line that is 11,000 miles long,” Rigby said.
Singer concluded the public hearing by highlighting what he views as potential unanticipated impacts of the proposed project.
“You can’t put a price on improved cell service to an area that hasn’t demonstrated that it is truly deficient and then go ahead and exploit the natural resources without really taking into consideration the irreversible damage that it is going to do,” Singer said. “Those generators are going to fire up twice a week, kicking out diesel fumes until they warm up. That’s not going to be very pleasant for anyone walking on the gas line when the wind is prevailing northwest. There are studies in India showing that cellphone towers reduced the sparrow populations by 50 to 70 percent over three years, not to mention disorienting the honeybees with the radio-frequency disorientation. The footprint of the tower doesn’t sound that big, but you never know what things are going to leak off it. It’s not like it’s a sterile environment — you have construction debris, leaks, [and] you’re running 20-ton cranes over the power line. . . It’s just going to be an incursion on a wilderness that wasn’t built for it.”
The ZBA voted to continue the public hearing to next month’s meeting and to assume lead agency status for the application.
The board also authorized Dunkle and Langey to engage with an RF engineer.
The ZBA meets on the fourth Monday of each month at 7:30 pm in the Gothic Cottage, 7 Albany St.