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State contracts for cell towers.

The parks, parkways and prisons of New York State are among the people's assets poised to host cellular communications towers. Designed to co-locate telecommunication services and prevent crowded skylines, the strategy was initially conceived to provide a free framework for new state police communications.

But as sites are beginning to be chosen and leased to telecom providers, the state's planning weight could be enhanced by pending state legislation that would prevent local municipalities from interfering or regulating towers being developed on state- or county-owned land.

That isn't sitting well with local communities which have finally formulated and passed new laws to control the siting of these antennas.

And while the real estate industry has benefitted enormously by renting rooftop space to tenants and telecom services for devices ranging from microwaves to radio waves, the specter of huge "monopoles" or towers rising in front of carefully groomed corporate campuses is joining them ideologically with local residents.

Ironically, some of the cell towers and so-called monopoles will be erected in state parks and along roadways which have long barred any signage. But state officials insist the intent of the contract is to co-locate these arrays and avoid having numerous antennas sprouting on nearby hillsides - albeit private ones.

With the advent of so-called PCS or Personal Communications Systems, many more antennas are needed. Whereas older cells could be six to 12 miles apart, PCS systems need antennas from one to six miles apart, depending on the urban density of the area.

Crown Castle of Latham, NY, a division of Crown International, was awarded the site management project last year after a two-year RFP process.

During that time, working with state agencies, it inventoried state property and identified places and buildings that could possibly host cell arrays, concurrently marketing them to various communications providers. Crown officials declined to discuss their role and referred inquiries to the State Police.

William Callahan, director of fiscal management for the State Police, who is overseeing the contract, describes driving over the twin bridges from Albany to Saratoga: "In a half mile there are three towers, and that's the type of thing that we're trying to avoid," he explained.

The contract is being managed by the State Police because it grew out of their need to implement a new, state-wide communications system. "The largest cost was the backbone," Callahan said. "This will assist us in getting a footprint for the radio system... It's a great service and a great cost savings to the state, because we don't have to build towers."

The State Police will have the right to locate their radio transmitters at the sites, and is offering their use to local police and fire officials. Additionally, some of the sites will host video cameras which will be feeding visuals into a State Police-monitored IntermodelTransportationSystem, designed to identify traffic problems. One monitoring site in Westchester will operate out of the Hawthorne barracks.

The 20-year contract has two 10-year options to renew at the choice of the state. The state will own the towers and other sites, while Crown Castle will manage and lease them to the communications companies.

The agreement calls for the proceeds to be split 50/50, except in the case where new towers must be constructed, where Crown might be investing "hundreds of thousands of dollars." In that case, the split for the first 10 years will be 70/30 in favor of Crown.

The new monopole cell towers can cost $100,000 or more to design, construct and install, industry sources said. The application for a Scarsdale site along the Hutchinson River Parkway values the "improvement" at $110,000, which would include a 25 x 25-foot fenced compound and electrical cabinet.

Although the Crown contract was valued at $1 million for state budget purposes, Callahan agrees its long-term value to both sides could be much, much more. As building owners have discovered, lease payments from the communications companies are an added income stream for the properties. "They can get $10,000 to $50,000, depending on the size of the array and the location," noted Callahan, who will approve all of the contracts.

Crown has a memorandum of understanding with various state agencies, including those overseeing transportation, parks and prisons. After surveying the asset, Crown will discuss the site from a "conceptual perspective," i.e. if the site could be used, and if all the problems for the site could be solved, would a tower or a facility fit?

"The answer is usually yes," said Richard Morris, director of the real estate division at NYS Department of Transportation (DOT). "That's not an approval," he insisted. "Then Crown has to pursue all the required approvals, the SEQR (State Environmental Quality Review) and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and whatever [else] is necessary."

Crown will initially focus on the area from Binghamton to Long Island, and in July, officially applied to an unknown number of communities for permission to site towers.

"It is a revenue-sharing undertaking and serves a terrific purpose for state agencies in that we don't have to deal with the carriers. they are all funnelled through Crown, which is a professional site management company," said Morris.

But now it is the communities that are dealing with Crown. One of those is Scarsdale, the Village that said "No" to a three-lane Hutchinson River Parkway, and is beginning to give Crown Castle a sample of its ire.

Village officials learned about Crown's interest in September, 1998, said Mayor Mark Bench during a trustee meeting last week at which Village residents were allowed to ask questions [including this reporter].

But residents and other trustees didn't learn of the plan until an application was sent to the Buildings Department in mid-July for a site on a rise along the Hutchinson River Parkway at Exit 22, across the parkway from the Westchester County-owned Saxon Woods Golf Course and Restaurant, and directly across from several homes on Mamaroneck Road.

The small piece of land was created when the parkway was widened and the northbound entrance and exit ramp curves between the proposed 120-foot monopole and the rest of the Saxon Woods Park and the Scarsdale Village-owned Weinberg Nature Center [whose Friends group is led by this reporter.] A horse trail also meanders by, as does the Eight Mile Varvayanis Greenway Trail, a walking trail established by the Appalachian Mountain Club that passes through several towns.

But its tactical location is perfect for cellular users, because at this time the area south of Exit 22 to the Cross County Parkway is a cellular wasteland, and most drivers either lose their calls or cannot begin them in this section - making even 911 calls impossible.

"The Hutch is one of those corridors where coverage today is poor or non-existent," said Morris. "And the carriers, in response to their clients, are trying to build networks that don't drop calls."

So far, the new monopole is being designed and used by Omnipoint, and the application and radio frequency report refer to three antennae arrays, although the drawings show a four array design. Users of Bell Atlantic, AT&T, Nextel, Sprint and other services worry, therefore, that despite colocation dreams encouraged by both the State contract with Crown and the local ordinance, their phones still won't work without even more poles going up.

"I've seen cases where the carriers realize it's in their best interest to co-locate if it makes technological and economic sense," said David Bronston, of counsel to Wolf Block Schorr and Solis-Cohen who represents both property owners and certain cell companies. "It's up to the owner or builder of the tower to decide to share the costs or share additional revenues."

Others are worried about an increase in accidents in an area where drivers learned long ago that calls aren't possible, and now concentrate on their driving and not their conversations. Recent studies now show that drivers talking on cell phones are more likely to have an accident, and basically drive as if they are drunk. So a Catch-22 for the State Police is that they will soon make it easier for more people to become caught up in cell discussions while driving, essentially making the roads less safe.

Above the Hutchinson River Parkway, small planes and helicopters use a flight path that cuts off a parkway curve and actually veers straight across at least one of the proposed monopole locations.

Jack Stockman, director of operations at Wayfarer, which handles airplane charters, management sales and maintenance out of the Westchester County Airport, thinks the 120-foot-tall pole shouldn't be a problem for pilots, as the helicopters fly above 500 feet and the small planes even higher. Rolling topography and bad weather also keeps the pilots flying higher, he noted.

If such a pole is the highest obstruction in the area, he said, normally the FAA would install a beacon on it, such as they do with tall buildings, but he has found they have been sensitive to residential communities and don't always install them, simply adding the sites to maps.

FAA Eastern Region spokesperson Jim Peters said if the obstruction is over 200 feet above sea level, they require the sponsor of the project to file an obstruction evaluation, and the FAA would make a determination if the proposed structure is a hazard to navigation.

"If we were to make the determination, we would require certain mitigating measures, i.e. that it be painted or lighted. And if we were to declare it a hazard to navigation, we would also mark it on aeronautical charts," Peters said.

A Freedom of Information Act request to determine if Crown had filed with the FAA was not responded to before deadline, but if a monopole or tower is deemed an aviation hazard, it would have to be marked with the flashing red beacon and painted aviation orange and white - very different from the camouflaged poles shown off by the cell industry.

The camouflaged sites, however, can cost "much, much more," because, as a representative of Summit Manufacturing of West Hazleton, PA said, they would be "cladding the pole with fake bark."

Attorney Bronston says he has seen poles camouflaged like tall evergreens in Colorado and as palm trees in Florida. "You know they are cell towers because in the hurricane winds they don't sway," he recalled.

In order to properly engineer the poles and project wind loads, etc., the pole design is specified before it is built, said a Summit manufacturing representative who declined to be identified. Additionally, any "candy-striping" or airplane alert beacons would normally be specified in the initial design.

The rep explained that moving the location even by 10 feet might cause the signals not to work at all, a problem for communities that want companies to find alternative locations and don't act fast enough.

Scarsdale Village Manager Al Gatta would like Crown Castle to consider other sites, including an edge of the Saxon Woods Golf Course where DOT owns some right of way and the monopole tower would not be near any homes.

He blames Westchester County "for not taking the lead" on the cell siting issue and leaving the 42 municipalities to individually negotiate locations. [A county spokesperson did not respond before deadline.] But Gatta happily relays that he has achieved $30,000 a year in income for Scarsdale by permitting three cells to be placed on the roof of Village Hall.

For the monopole, however, Crown officials are asserting they don't have to comply with local laws, even though they have tried to do so. The monopole, for instance, is 120 feet tall, as prescribed by the Village ordinance, and the setback from the homes is about 185 feet.

In a letter accompanying its application dated July 14, 1999, Crown Castle Account Executive Kelly McSpirit wrote, "Although projects on New York State property are not required by law to adhere to local zoning. Crown Castle has endeavored to comply with Scarsdale's local ordinance."

After a moratorium on cell site locating and much fact finding, Scarsdale passed Local Law 1 of 1998, encouraging telecommunications providers to consider some of the 900 acres under county and state control, as well as those under Village jurisdiction.

The law, modeled on nearby Greenburgh's ordinance, calls for setbacks from schools, day care, residences and houses of worship; exempts recreational and library facilities from hosting cell sites; requires landscaping around the facility; and calls for "minimum visual impact on surrounding areas, parks and roadways."

"They have to be compatible and fit it," insisted Robert Dennison, regional director of DOT, on Crown Castle proposals. "We've had long discussions as to how they can fit in."

Scarsdale created two pathways to approval for new monopoles. The first, for Residence A districts on parcels of less than 20 acres, but not less than 350 feet from adjoining structures; and for parcels in other zoning districts of less than 20 acres and 125 away from dwelling units schools, places of worship or day care centers, which require a special permit from the Planning Board.

The other, as-of-right application, would be for siting on parcels larger than 20 acres, a parking structure or property owned by the Village of Scarsdale that houses buildings of at least 15,000 square feet not used for recreation, education, day care or library purposes. This requires merely a Building Inspector approval.

Crown has filed for an as-of-right permit, but area residents say the chosen site is less than 20 acres, and therefore the application should be decided by the volunteer resident Planning Board, and not by the Building Inspector. Gatta says the Building Inspector has "several issues" regarding the permit.

Health concerns are not permitted to be raised by residents unless studies show the cells do not comply with the Federal standards.

Meanwhile, the New York State legislature has several bills pending on the siting of cellular services, including a so-called compromise bill, opposed by groups like Scenic Hudson, that would prohibit any local regulation, control or input by communities when towers are sited on state or county land.

That could mean, for instance, that a cell tower could rise on state or county easements running in front of many suburban office buildings which are sited near or along main roads:

"As developers, we are always concerned about the exterior presence of our properties and we focus on the exterior," said Robert Skolnick, vice president of Jack Parker Corporation, which owns a campus property near the Hutchinson River Parkway in White Plains at 1311 Mamaroneck Avenue on a hill across from the Saxon Woods pool entrance.

While the company rents discrete rooftop space to a few communications firms, they are very concerned about the appearance of the property, and recently created a stunning garden, bridge and waterfall by the front of the building around what was previously a grossed drainage pool.

"When you pass Parker Corporate Center. one if its advantages is that it's mirrored and set in a wonderful, treed, beautiful setting, and we are very conscious of aesthetics," Skolnick said. "If we as private developers are [concerned], shouldn't the state be?"

Skolnick thinks cell tower siting comes down to simple, common sense. "If you are talking about an industrial location, and not next to suburban locations that people pass by or go to work at for their serenity, it's a different situation," he said.

Similarly, Skolnick would not want a monopole or tower located on state or county land in from of or near the campus property. But he agreed that if a pole were camouflaged and hidden within the woods way in the back of their more than 20-acre hillside site, and didn't interfere with the electronics or aesthetics of his building or that of his neighbors, and provided better service, it might be something he would consider.

Besides. he added, "My phone doesn't work on the Hutch either."
COPYRIGHT 1999 Hagedorn Publication
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Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:New York State
Author:Weiss, Lois
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Aug 4, 1999
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