By Kristin Schultz
Niskayuna may be a welcoming, friendly community, but there is one neighbor that some residents want to keep out — a proposed 120-foot cellphone tower along WTRY Road.
Although the official public hearing period expired at the end of February, citizens have continued to attend town planning meetings to voice their concerns. Armed with studies, emails and petitions, residents have taken to the boardroom podium, neighborhood sidewalks and local school parking lots to express their opposition and garner support.
“I do not pay the high taxes to live and send my children to school in Niskayuna to now have the town decrease our property values,” said Deborah Foley at the March 13 Planning Board meeting.
According to an article cited by the National Association of Realtors and presented to the Planning Board, 94 percent of home-buyers and renters are less interested in a property located near a cell tower or antenna and would pay less to do so.
Earl Bristol has lived on WTRY Road for more than three decades.
“I’ve put up with the town garage going in, put up with the buses that were there for a while, put up with the offices that recently went in and now this? Enough is enough,” he said. “WTRY Road is going to be a catch-all for all the harebrained projects that come down the road.
“I’ve been in my house for 34 years, so I’m not worried about the value of my house when I sell it, but I’m worried about the younger people who just bought their houses. They’re the ones you’re going to be kicking in the teeth.”
Most of the speakers who have addressed the board in the past month have expressed concern about declining property values. They say not only will the tower be an eyesore that will put off potential buyers, but the perceived health risks of living in close proximity to the tower may scare buyers.
The idea of potential health risks is a sticky one. Representatives from Verizon presented information at the Feb. 27 public hearing including data showing the amount of radio-frequency waves being in compliance with FCC regulations and that at full operation radio-frequency waves would emit less than 1 percent of the maximum allowed amount.
Residents, on the other hand, have presented the Planning Board with studies stating that more research is necessary to determine the health impacts of living, working and going to school near cellphone towers.
“I would ask the board to consider the perceived health risk,” said Foley at the March 13 meeting. “Whether it’s real or not, the perceived risk impacts residents and property values.”
Since the tower would be in compliance with FCC regulations, the town cannot consider health concerns as a factor in deciding to approve or reject the cell tower.
“The Federal Communications Act of 1996 and subsequent case law prohibits boards from considering health concerns in this matter,” said Town Planner Laura Robertson. “It makes sense. The members of the planning board are not medical experts.”
Residents have pointed out, however, that Niskayuna’s telecommunications facility code provides for, in addition to safety and health, general welfare. Foley said in an email that the stress and anxiety associated with the tower damages the general welfare.
Ketut Dartawan has collected more than 100 signatures on a petition opposing the tower. Dartawan has also spoken at Planning Board meetings since February. He, too is concerned about property values, health and welfare issues and has questioned the need for the tower.
At the Feb. 27 public hearing, the Planning Board requested an independent review of the data and cellphone tower project. The reviewer’s job is to analyze the data related to the project, including signal coverage, and to take into account residents’ concerns as raised at public meetings, particularly related to property values.
The data from Tarpon Towers, the company that is petitioning the town and would build and own the facility, is still being submitted to the independent reviewer. Once he completes his review, he will provide a written recommendation to the Planning Board. The town hopes to have that by its April 24 meeting. There is no meeting on April 10 because of the Passover holiday.
Tarpon Towers, a Bradenton, Florida-based company, proposed the project in mid-February. Tarpon Towers would build the structure on town property, then lease the land from the town.
Verizon Wireless would be the primary cell phone carrier to use the tower, but there would be additional space on the tower for other carriers to co-locate their equipment. Additional space would be available at no charge for the town of Niskayuna to install some of its emergency equipment.