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With Little Choice, Planning Board Okays St. Peter’s Tower

Thu, 05/04/2023 - 10:22
A drawing submitted with the application shows the size of the tower in relation to St. Peter's Chapel.

A process that began eight years ago came to a sudden ending last week, as the East Hampton Town Planning Board voted 5-to-1 to allow the erection of a 70-foot cell tower at St. Peter’s Chapel in Springs.

Board members were clearly not happy about the outcome. Samuel Kramer, the chairman, recalled a bike trip to Springs decades prior. “We came upon the chapel, and I said, ‘This is gorgeous. This is a beautiful spot.’ And I remember it well. It was over 30 years ago. And it ain’t going to be, now. It’s not going to be quite so beautiful. And that’s a damned shame.”

The board had little or no choice in the matter. East Hampton Town, facing a lawsuit from AT&T, had reached a settlement agreement with the multinational telecommunications company last month mandating that the planning board render a decision by April 24.

AT&T first proposed a tower at the location, 465 Old Stone Highway, in 2015. It would be hidden within a faux bell tower, euphemistically referred to as the “campanile facility.” The planning board rejected that proposal in 2020, and AT&T threatened to sue. The town hired outside counsel to consult, and the lawyers concluded that AT&T would ultimately prevail in court after expensive litigation.

Negotiations began. Under the settlement agreement, if the planning board did not approve the 70-foot cell tower, AT&T would be allowed to build a “50-foot-tall Italianate bell tower” just feet away from the rural 19th-century chapel.

The new plan was unveiled to the board at its March 1 meeting. A public hearing was held not long after, on April 12. No one found it appealing.

To build the 70-foot tower, a single metal tube that is not a “stealth monopole” — instead, it will have “pieces on it” according to Sharon McCobb, a board member — large trees will be removed from the St. Peter’s property. A short straight driveway from Old Stone Highway will lead to an equipment shack beneath the tower. Evergreen trees will line the driveway in an attempt to screen the industrial-looking site. A gate will block the equipment compound and prevent parking along the access road.

“Okay, folks, we are at a point now where we have to decide,” said Mr. Kramer at the April 26 meeting.

Randy Parsons was the lone board member who refused to agree to the settlement. “Whether or not the settlement agreement will withstand litigation, we don’t know. We are told the planning board’s denial of the campanile will be automatically wiped out [should the board deny the application] and the applicant will have permission from a settlement agreement to build the campanile. With a planning board denial on record, I’m not sure that will withstand a challenge either. I intend to vote against this.”

Mr. Parsons suggested that the board require that all licenses for the tower, from the Federal Communications Commission and the New York State Office of Historic Preservation, be granted as a condition of its approval, should AT&T build a tower that might not ultimately be allowed to operate.

“The F.C.C. approval should come before there is a building permit,” he said.

Kelly Wright, the town’s outside counsel, objected that doing so would violate federal law. There was no scenario, she said, in which AT&T would build a tower without first securing federal and state approval.

“We’ve heard they’re not going to build it unless they get those approvals, so why wouldn’t we condition it on those approvals being in place before our building permit is issued?” Mr. Parsons wanted to know.  “We’ve been cowed enough with this application, frankly.”

Ms. McCobb, too, expressed frustration. She was “taken aback,” she said, by a “pretty shocking” photo taken from a neighbor’s backyard, with a simulated tower added.

“Nobody’s excited,” said Ian Calder-Piedmonte, another board member, “but it’s not in the town’s best interest to fight something we’re not going to win.”

At this point, said Lou Cortese, all the board could do was add their “superfluous comments.”

“You can deny,” said Mr. Parsons.

“If we deny, the likely alternative is the campanile,” said Mr. Calder-Piedmonte. Mr. Kramer agreed.

“You’re stating that as a fact,” argued Mr. Parsons. “But that’s only what the settlement agreement says.”

“I’m stating it as my belief that we have a signed settlement agreement and we’re bound to it,” said the chairman. “You’re willing to gamble with that agreement and hope that down the road somewhere it’s going to be overturned by a court.”

After the vote, Eric Schantz, assistant director of the Town Planning Department, stood up. “The planning department will work very hard to find new solutions to cure the coverage gap in this area that would obviate the need for this facility,” he promised.

Deb Foster of Springs spoke up after the record was closed. “By the way, congratulations, Randy, on your denial,” she said. “Your first denial. You did the right thing.”

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