For close to two years the Howell Zoning Board of Adjustment has heard testimony on both sides of an application to build a 120 foot monopole on Oak Glen Rd.
T-Mobile, the applicant in the case, had presented its case for the need to build the tower. On the other side several local residents particularly from the Monmouth Ridings development presented their case for why the tower would have a negative affect on their lives, particularly from the visual and aesthetic points.
Monday night attorneys for both sides made their closing arguments and according to at least one board member it was those arguments that helped him to vote in favor of the ultimately successful application.
Attorney Edward Liston, representing the objectors, had the chance to make his case first and said he did not believe T-Mobile had proven its case enough to approve the application. He said the property, which is owned by the Christ Church on Oak Glen Rd. is in an ARE-6 zone which he believed meant a cell phone tower should not be built there. "They have to show you that although the council in adopting your zoning ordinance did not allow this use in this zone, it somehow can be reconciled with your master plan and your zone," he said. "Almost as if you're saying to the council you didn't allow it here but that may have been an oversight or you should have."
Liston also said he did not believe the cell phone company had proven that the proposed tower would have "no adverse impact to the public good," adding, "the issue you're left with is is this site the most suitable site for a cell tower or are there other sites in town that are equally suitable or perhaps a little less suitable but can be adapted to meet the applicant's needs."
Since the application was first submitted T-Mobile had already agreed to move the location of the tower and Liston said he believed it could have been moved even further onto the Christ Church property. By doing that, he said he believed it would have less of a negative affect on the residents he was representing. "One of the things I think Howell Township has done correctly and well is to create an ordinance which sets up the controlling issues that ought to be considered when locating these cell towers," he said.
He pointed to several parts of the township's ordinance as proof of why he believed the application should be denied. That included to "protect residential areas and land uses from potential adverse impacts from towers and antenna's," according to Liston.
Looking at the ordinance Liston said, "I believe it either directly or indirectly contradicts or violates every other purpose of the ordinance that's set forth."
On the other side of the application was Michael Beck representing T-Mobile who said he believed the tower would benefit not only T-Mobile users but also other cellular customers whose companies could also attach themselves to the tower.
Beck said in addition to improving performance and reception for customers the tower would also help with other areas like emergency calls where the tower would help locate customers in need of assistance. "The technical need of this site is very important as is particular suitability and that's something the board has to consider," he said. "Whether or not this site is particularly suited for the proposed use."
In its ordinances the township has certain zones where cell phone towers are conditional uses, but Beck said during the testimony of some of his experts it was shown that none of those zones were located in what he called a "search zone." The attorney added, "This is a site needed to fill in a gap," he said. "It wasn't because the system is being overwhelmed. There's just a gap in the coverage."
With the visual impact of the tower being one of the major points of contention Beck said T-Mobile attempted to move it as far as possible without having to clear too many trees in the heavily wooded area. "The board is well aware that this pole was moved on this property multiple times and each time it was moved further away from the vast majority of the residences that are across from Oak Glen Rd," he said.
He also said that another difference between the church property and others where cell phone towers have been built, the layout ensures that only a small percentage of houses in the area will be able to see the tower. "You're going to have a window of about 20 degrees on a compass where this is going to be visible," he said.
With the current location Beck said only 19 trees will have to be removed while moving it back into the property would mean taking down even more trees. "We have to balance the visual impact and the environmental impact," he said. "There is a balancing act. I know this board is conscious of the environmental impacts of this site beyond visual. There's a balancing act that this board has to do."
Finding that balance was an important factor for both sides. "You have to balance the positive and negative criteria," Beck said. "Promotion of the general welfare by better communications versus really the visual impact. When you balance those things out, on balance does the promotion of the general welfare exceed the visual impact. We're left with what we're left with and that's looking for the biggest piece of property that has the least impact on your municipality and that's what was done in this case."
Board member Wendell Nanson said it was that balancing act that ultimately swayed his vote. "I believe the applicant did meet the balancing act as far as they did meet the criteria," he said. Originally he had based his decision no the visual aspects of the application.
Looking at additional factors including the emergency services aspect, Nanson said that was one reason he changed his mind. He also said he did not believe moving the tower further back would be beneficial to the overall application.
Fellow board member John Armata said there was enough proof for him from T-Mobile's witnesses and experts that the tower would not have an overall negative affect on the surrounding area.
He said that as cell phone usage increases there will be more of a need to ensure the signal remains strong for users. "Adequate channel availability along with signal reliability will be marginal if the cell providers do not respond to the growing customer base and its requirement to depend on a cell phone for personal, business, medical, governmental, emergency and entertainment uses just to name a few," he said.
The ability to use cell phones for any number of reasons is something Armata said was important to him. "The density of cell towers is not great, but as we realize times have changed," he said. "For the betterment of our daily lives we have to have reliable communication media to meet both today's needs and the needs of the future."
Two members of the board, Edward Guz and Michael Sanclimenti voted against the application based on the zoning and visual impact the tower would have. "The zones that are ARE zone six is the least desirable of all possible locations for where a cell phone tower can be constructed," Guz said. "That alone is a detriment."
Residents of Monmouth Ridings had testified before the board at previous meetings and Guz said he had heard their message. "Their choice and that of many neighbors that live in that same community who live in this location was predicated by the visual impact of their neighborhood and as protected possibly in perpetuity by the adjacent zone," he said. "I think it's our duty as a board to preserve the environment as much as possible with the anticipation that people choose to live in the area could have some assurance that their environment will be preserved both visually and aesthetically."
Sanclimenti also agreed that the zoning and the affect of the tower on local residents were important to keep in mind. "It states the goals include the preservation of rural and agricultural use and the preservation of rural character," he said. "This board has rejected applications because of commercial entities, residential entities coming in that would ruin the rural character. In my opinion this does ruin the rural character."
Guz said he did not believe the applicant had done enough to show that there was a gap in the service that needed to be filled by the proposed tower. He also said there was no evidence presented that showed that emergency calls had been dropped without the tower up to this point. "There had to be some record somewhere where somebody in distress was unable to contact an authority for help because of a lack of cellular coverage, he said.
Another area of discussion was whether the tower would be disguised as a tree or left as a pole. Guz said he believed that was an important part of the application as well. He called it a "tacit admission that the structure's visual impact would require significant aesthetic mitigation." Guz added, "I'm reminded of the old saying you can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig. In this case whether you disguise it as a pine tree or not it's still going to be there."
In another close vote the board opted to not require T-Mobile to build the pole designed as a tree.
Normally serving as the vice chairperson for the board Valeri Morone has served as chair of this hearing since the beginning of the year and said at Monday's meeting she believed T-Mobile had made a strong case for the approval of the application.
While she missed the meeting with the testimony presented by the planner for the objectors, Morone said the testimony she read in the transcript was not enough to change her vote. "I was disappointed when I read it because I was looking for reasons against voting for the cell tower and I didn't hear anything substantial," she said. "I believe this variance can be granted without substantial negative impact on the zone."
During the final vote and after the meeting residents were clearly unhappy with the result. Anthony Mallano said he was glad Guz and Sanclimenti voted against the application and wished their arguments had been enough to sway other members of the board. "A lot of us were really worried about the aesthetics," he said. "What if something happens in the future and you do need to sell. If I'm in my backyard and I see a cell tower I'm not going to buy that house. That's the bottom line, I'm going to buy someone else's house."
Mallano also disagreed with the idea that moving the tower further would cost more trees. "The residents are not higher on the totem pole than a couple of trees in the council's eyes," he said.
One of the residents who has played a key role in the objector's movement was Christine Lundberg who said she was "extremely upset over the vote." Like Mallano she believed the dissenting members made valid points that could have changed the vote. "I feel it's totally absurd for them to pass this at all," she said. "They're upsetting a whole community."
While the local residents will have to consider whether they want to appeal the decision Lundberg said she is preparing to deal with the reality of the situation. "Unfortunately we are going to have to see a 120 foot monopole standing in my backyard because some people on the panel decided to make a vote that I feel they wouldn't have made if it was in their backyard," she said. "It's not something we're happy with whatsoever."