Judging from the political ads and letters-to-the-editor,
things are certainly heating up in advance of our local election.
How much of what‚s being said is true, and how much
is projection or whatever∑these are things each of us
need to sift through for ourselves. Things are obviously tense,
framed as we all know by the prospect of big development and
very big changes ahead. Whenever issues are big and complex,
there‚s a tendency to want to simplify them, and sometimes
try and create the appearance of conflict where it may or
may not really exist. The perfect case in point is cell service
in Shandaken. If there‚s a single person that doesn‚t
want cell service in Shandaken, we haven‚t met them.
It‚s as close to being something everyone here wants
as we‚ve ever heard of, and the issue isn‚t whether
people are "for" or "against" it.
It‚s how we‚re going to get it in here.
In May of 2001, our ZBA issued a variance to construct a steel
lattice tower almost 200 feet high atop the cliffs above the
Phoenicia Diner. Soon afterwards, 172 people signed a suit
asking the courts to stay that decision. None of them
so far as we know opposed cell service or the construction
of cell towers. They opposed that tower, that variance, because
Verizon‚s own tests showed a far smaller one would have
worked just as well. And like people in the rest of our region,
they wanted towers that didn‚t mar the landscape more
than necessary. The company refused repeatedly to negotiate
for a less obtrusive design, even though that‚s what
they‚re building in just about every other community.
So it went to court and the court backed the town. The decision
was appealed twice, with both higher courts ruling that none
of the 172 petitioners had the legal standing to bring suit,
in keeping with the apparent criteria for New York‚s
courts that if something can‚t fall on your head, you‚ve
no right to challenge it. The actual case, the issues relating
to the variance, were never heard.
One could say the suit "failed" because the town
won, or one could say that it failed because it failed to
break the lock on the courthouse door. But there's another
way to look at it as well. The truth is a bad decision got
made and challenged for one reason: Shandaken's zoning code
was inadequate, and didn't have a law that laid out what was
acceptable here. That's why Planning Board member Bob Kalb
fought for years for a moratorium on cell tower applications;
to give us a chance to write that law. Well, as things have
worked out we've now effectively had that moratorium, both
because of the suit and a downturn at the same time in the
telecommunications business. And fortunately we've used the
time well because we now have - at least in draft form -the
law that would have prevented the suit and helped get the
get the towers we need up and running.
Something as basic and critical to our town as cellular communications
should be a non-partisan issue here, and we think it is. But
we also think one has to give credit where it's due, and our
new cell tower law is basically Pete Di Modica‚s doing,
along with a lot of volunteer help from planner Helen Budrock
of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. Di
Modica put together a committee that‚s worked
on the law for six months with our Planning and ZBA chairs,
our Zoning Enforcement Officer, and local experts from the
telecommunications industry. And though there may be
some final changes in language before it comes to public hearing,
what we've got is a superb law in the making.
Most traditional cell tower laws try to regulate the particulars:
not this one. There‚s no set height limit for example,
what we have is a flexible height capped at 40 feet above
the surrounding tree canopy. There's a two-tiered system designed
to encourage providers to propose the preferred or "stealth"
type of tower with limited visual impacts. These could essentially
be built anywhere, with a streamlined review process. Less
desirable designs with greater visual impact like Verizon‚s
initial proposal would be permitted, though restricted to
R3 and R5 zones, and with a more intensive review process.
There‚s a lot more of course, all of it in our view,
good and necessary.The point of the law is to use the carrot,
not the stick to move the creature forward, and most people
who‚ve looked at it think it'll work, and could well
become a new model law for towns like ours. As soon as final
comments are integrated, a public hearing will be scheduled
and electronic and printed copies made available.
We think that Shandaken will be well served by the law and
the process, and that both represent a model of thoughtful,
responsible town governance. That‚s why it's distressing,
even in an election season, to see the spin that‚s out
there that our town government is part of the problem, not
the solution to getting cell service here. The problem was
that there was no law, and from this point on, we think it
should be a non-issue insofar as politics are concerned. Ironically,
the issue actually started out non-partisan. Jane Todd for
instance was the only board member who actually realized what
an awful decision our ZBA had made, and voted not to even
spend the town's money defending their action. Di Modica agreed
personally but voted to defend the ZBA, so as not to set a
precedent of interfering with one of the town's boards. At
the time we thought Todd was right and Di Modica was wrong
to defend the ZBA, when in our view and presumably in her's,
they had violated the law. But the lower court saw it differently
and the upper courts wouldn't take the case. You just never
know with lawsuits, but hopefully we won't see any more on
this subject. That's what home rule and good laws are for.
It's our right, and it's our responsibility to put in place
new laws once in a while when we actually need them. We think
this is one law everybody can comfortably back.