This story first appeared in The Sunday Greenwich Time. Click here to subscribe.
When Karen Sadik-Kahn heard that a 157-foot cell phone tower could rise among the trees in the Montgomery Pinetum in the heart of Greenwich, her reaction -- along with fellow supporters of the nature preserve -- was swift.
"We are totally opposed to that. There should not be any cell tower, or other development, in the Pinetum," said Sadik-Kahn, who is president of the Garden Education Center, located on Bible Street in the 91-acre Pinetum.
The Pinetum land was donated to the town in the mid-1950s on the condition that it not be developed.
Cell towers, occasionally a controversial issue in Greenwich when carriers seek to expand their networks in town, has leapt to the forefront of public debate once again as residents have rallied against several proposed sites for a planned T-Mobile tower.
T-Mobile's initial plan to erect a tower in the form of an 80-foot flagpole on Palmer Hill Road near North Mianus School angered parents who believe the health of their children would be at risk.
They cited studies of a higher risk of cancer and other health issues due to the electromagnetic radiation from cell towers.
Additionally, there were objections to the cell tower's height, which would rise far above the approximately 40-foot-high tree line.
Residents packed the Town Hall Meeting Room last June as the proposal was being discussed by the Planning and Zoning Commission to voice their objections.
They also organized a campaign against the plan, which led to town officials huddling with T-Mobile representatives throughout the summer to see if there might be other options.
Town officials suggested the wireless carrier look at six sites: St. Catherine of Siena Church, 4 Riverside Ave.; the E. Gaynor Brennan Public Golf Course, 451 Stillwater Road, Stamford, near the Greenwich town line; town-owned property at 54 Bible St. in Cos Cob; the Aquarion Water Co. facility on Valley Road in Cos Cob; 129 Bible St. in the Montgomery Pinetum and a second site in the Pinetum in the area behind the Garden Education Center.
TOWN FAVORS 2 COS COB SITES
Of those sites, 129 Bible St. is the favored option, First Selectman Peter Tesei said.
"I think that is the one that is most viable and that I am willing to consider in lieu of having it go next to a school," he said.
Should the town enter into an agreement with T-Mobile for the Bible Street site, the 157-foot cell tower would be located on 5,625 square feet of town property that it would lease for 10 years with the option to renew for an additional 20 years in two segments. The wireless carrier would require an additional 450 square feet at the site for electrical equipment.
The town would receive $2,500 in monthly rent that would increase annually by 3 percent, as well as 20 percent of any income generated by T-Mobile's subleasing of space on the tower to other carriers.
However, Tesei referred to another site that borders the Pinetum as a possible solution -- land owned by the Cos Cob Archers at 205 Bible St.
Founded in 1954, the club owns a 23-acre site on which archery enthusiasts enjoy their sport.
Tesei said the archers approached the town about possibly building a tower on their site.
"They were reading about it in the newspaper," he said. "They approached Selectman David Theis and said they were interested and he mentioned that to me."
Tesei said it could mean additional cash for the club.
"Clearly if they determine it is in their interests as an organization to earn revenue to support the payment of taxes and keep the land undeveloped, I think it would be a tremendous benefit," he said.
When asked if he prefers the archers site, Tesei said: "If it was the Cos Cob Archers site instead of 129 Bible St., the answer is yes."
The Cos Cob Archers, meanwhile, are staying quiet on the issue.
Jeff Stempian, the club's president, declined to comment and instead referred to a brief release the archers issued two weeks ago.
In it, the archers said that if public opposition to other locations is too strong, "then placement in a private, wooded location might be more palatable."
Lack of local control irks residents
Fred Camillo, who represents Cos Cob and North Mianus in the state Legislature, said his constituents believe they are shut out of the tower approval process.
"The people acknowledge the fact there has to be sites provided for these cell towers, but there is incredible frustration over the fact there is no local control," he said. "It ties our hands in what we can do."
The Planning and Zoning Commission can only make recommendations; it cannot reject a cell tower, a power that resides with the New Britain-based Connecticut Siting Council.
The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits any state or local agency from regulating telecommunications towers on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions.
A consultant who works with property owners on placing cell towers on their land or buildings said local control would see far fewer towers dotting the landscape. And with that, more cell phone users "dropping" or losing their calls.
"If local control was provided, half of the towers in the United States would not exist," said Ken Schmidt, president of Fort Myers, Fla.-based Steel In The Air. "You would have everybody in the world having different opinions on it."
Schmidt estimates there could be as many as 150,000 to 175,000 cell towers in the U.S.
Camillo acknowledged that T-Mobile has worked with local officials in searching for another site instead of pushing ahead with its initial choice of 328 Palmer Hill Road.
"They could have gone up to the siting council, but they haven't," he said. "All the parties are working in good faith."
Through all the controversy, T-Mobile is keeping a low public profile.
Jane Builder, senior manager of external affairs for T-Mobile, issued an e-mail statement to Greenwich Time.
She said the carrier is looking at alternative sites in town and is "eager to move forward on a proposal as soon as possible," but didn't give a time frame.
Odds against tower opponents
In a response to a question from the audience about cell towers two weeks ago at the Riverside Association's annual meeting, Camillo said the odds were stacked against defeating a cell tower proposal at the siting council.
Ninety-six percent of cell tower applications are approved, he said. If the council turns down applications, "the cell companies go to court and then they win."
But Peter Berg, a member of the Representative Town Meeting for District 8/Cos Cob, challenged that statistic.
"That statistic has been going around, but you have to understand most cell tower applications don't have any opposition to them (when they go to the siting council)," said Berg, whose district includes several of the proposed tower sites.
Berg believes that if T-Mobile chooses to present the 328 Palmer Hill Road option to the siting council, local residents had a very good chance of overturning it because of the arguments they have already marshalled against the proposal.
He also noted that Greenwich resident and state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has also urged T-Mobile to select another site instead of Palmer Hill Road.
On its Web site, the Siting Council lists 25 cellular sites in Greenwich, ranging from a 115-foot tower tucked in the woods behind the Round Hill Community Church at 395 Round Hill Road, to a 70-foot flagpole at 36 Ritch Ave.
T-Mobile also eyeing byram
It's not only some in Cos Cob and North Mianus who are leery of a cell tower, Byram residents and town officials are also opposed to a separate T-Mobile plan to erect an 80-foot pole at 44 Talbot Lane near Interstate 95's Exit 2.
Tesei, along with senior zoning officials, met with T-Mobile representatives this past week. He said they urged the company to look for another location.
"We told them this is not an acceptable site. There is too much (population) density," he said. Also, the town is concerned that the tower's location sits on top of some underground infrastructure. Placing the tower there could make it difficult to access the sewer system, he said.
In the application T-Mobile filed with the town's Planning and Zoning Commission on Jan. 19, it said the site, a 14,000-square-foot property that includes a single-family home, would improve coverage in that section of town as well as along I-95.
It investigated six other sites: 9 Tingue St.; 38 Gold St.; 34, 104 and 124 Ritch Ave.; and 10 Hamilton St. AT&T has a flag pole that it uses as a cell tower at 34 Ritch Ave. T-Mobile rejected each location for a variety of reasons.
Tower opponents cite alternatives
Berg floated another option for wireless carriers to consider -- the Distributed Antenna System (DAS).
Instead of a tower looming over a residential area, DAS is a system in which antennas are placed on telephone poles or other structures that may only be 30 or 40 feet off the ground. These "nodes," as they are referred to in the industry, emit less power and cover a smaller area.
Noting that the city of Yonkers, N.Y., installed a DAS system last year, Berg suggested it could be considered for Greenwich.
"It sounds like a solution here," he said. "The town has to somehow bring in this other technology."
But Schmidt, the consultant on cell tower leasing, said it is not as clear cut as that.
"It costs substantially more to deploy DAS than building a tower; it's about three to four times as expensive," he said.
Schmidt said that it would take about three or four nodes to cover the same area as a cell tower that may be 100 feet tall with antennas sprouting out of it.
Staff Writer Frank MacEachern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-625-4434.