NARROWSBURG –The 40 participants at the Upper Delaware Council’s (UDC) March 29 workshop on “Siting Communication Towers in the Scenic Upper Delaware River Valley” learned about telecommunication trends and techniques for municipalities in dealing with that industry.
The three-hour workshop held at the Tusten Town Hall attracted local government officials, planning and zoning board members, and interested citizens from both sides of the bi-state river.
Orange County, NY Planning Commissioner and Cragsmoor resident David Church discussed his experiences with helping to draft model tower ordinances and a Conservation & Design Guidebook for the Shawangunk Ridge, which The Nature Conservancy lists among the 100 Most Sacred Places in the World.
“It was a very high sensitivity issue there, like the Delaware Valley. There was a concern there would be a proliferation. It’s a question of impact,” Church said. He noted that for many years, towers were not specifically addressed in local zoning codes.
Church acknowledged “some significant preemption by the federal government” when it comes to regulating utilities, adding, “There’s still a role for local government but you’re constrained in some ways.” Municipalities can prepare themselves, with or without zoning enacted, he suggested. The key is to balance a community’s resource values with societal needs. “You will get no modern business activity without telecommunications as part of the public infrastructure. It’s essential,” Church said.
He recommended that communities start by identifying and mapping their most important natural resources.
“What is it that you care about? You need to get consensus on that. If you care about scenic resources, you’re generally in the business of protecting public places,” he said. Different methods may be pursued after this identification process occurs. A community could adopt locally non-binding guidance describing how development should proceed, take an overlay approach, or draft a local law for site plan review.
If a community opts to address allowable uses through zoning, that requires developing definitions, a purpose statement of public need or intent, and an application process.
The second workshop speaker was Frank Yoder, who has managed Pennsylvania’s statewide radio network since 2007 as Broadband Services Manager with the Pennsylvania State Police. Yoder complimented the UDC on leading an effort to consider the potential cumulative impacts of telecommunications towers on the river valley region.
“I do appreciate and admire your holistic view approach. I don’t get to see that much,” he said. His network largely completed the construction of 250 towers to improve high-speed Internet connections throughout the Commonwealth in 2010.
“We recognize in public safety that these things are ugly. There’s no way around it,” Yoder said. “It’s certainly within the right of the community or region to ask for things that minimize visual impact.” One tip he offered was that a monopole painted gray, white, or light blue tends to reduce the visual intrusion, although it’s more expensive than the traditional lattice tower.
When dealing with tower applicants, Yoder suggested that communities hire a consultant to represent their interests in navigating through the complex, multi-agency process required under the National Environmental Policy Act; develop a relationship with those agencies such as the State Historic Preservation Office to alert them to local needs and contacts; request visual simulations, balloon tests and/or computerized viewshed analyses as a negotiating tool; and encourage co-location of antennas on towers for the benefits of reducing infrastructure and that multiple tenants split ongoing maintenance expenses.
Dick Comi, who has over 30 years of telecommunications experience first working for the telephone and wireless industries before becoming co-owner in 1997 of The Center for Municipal Solutions which “works the other side of the street” as a consultant to local governments, was the final workshop speaker.
To provide a scope of the industry’s prevalence, Comi offered the example of AT&T as “just one provider” announcing that they plan to install 50,000 more tower sites throughout the country.
“It’s the largest infrastructure development going on right now,” he said. “We won’t see towers going away in our lifetime but we will continue to see upgrades in technology. It has a long way to go. Eventually there won’t be any landlines for residential users. The usage is going to wireless,” Comi predicted.
He began by listing what municipalities cannot do in order to distinguish that they have some opportunity for control over all other aspects. The “can’t do” list includes: 1. Discriminate among service providers; 2. Prohibit towers (zone out) in a community; 3. Take an unreasonable amount of time to make a determination; 4. Deny an application if they verifiably meet the federal regulations for radiofrequency (RF) emissions; and 5. Deny an application without a
substantial written record.
Where towers are sited, how they look, lighting, screening, setback requirements, and more can be addressed through a local law, ordinance or regulation, regardless of whether zoning is in place. Comi advised hiring an attorney with some expertise in telecommunications to draft the regulatory instrument, developing an application process that takes the required action deadlines into account, and bringing a consultant on board to guide the review process which can be charged to the applicant. Comi addressed the sources of revenue available from wireless applicants if laid out in the ordinance
These include site facility rentals, application fees to adequately cover a municipality’s costs, and determining assessed value. To those who expressed discouragement that wireless companies are not driven to bring their services to the Upper Delaware River Valley due to the relatively small year-round population, Comi said rural areas are not excluded from consideration. The volume generation of voice and data usage comes more from the traffic on the roads than the number of people in the homes.
“You’ve got a very pristine area, folks. You better damn well protect it because the industry is going to come in eventually. Look out because they will put their towers where they want them, not where you want them. Protect your communities,” Comi said.
Continuing Education Credits were offered to participants and the presentations were recorded. For more information, please contact UDC Resource Specialist Travis O’Dell at (845) 252-3022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.