After a sudden show of force by opponents, North Haven’s village government beat a hasty retreat last week from its months-long, committee-led effort to improve cell phone reception with the construction of a cell tower on public land south of Stock Farm Lane.
Soon after opposition erupted at the Village Board’s February 16 meeting, Mayor Jeff Sander circulated an email announcing that the Village Board had “decided not to further investigate a cell tower as a solution to improve cell service in North Haven at this time.”
He added it was “unfortunate” that the three-person village committee he named to research the issue “was not able to get to the phase of soliciting public input from all residents in North Haven with a factual and well-informed recommendation to improve cell service in our community.”
Opponents cited health concerns about electromagnetic radiation; the aesthetic and environmental impacts of the tower, including the clearing that would be required; and the availability of alternative technologies to improve service, including “small-cell” installations on telephone poles and future satellite deployments, which they said soon will render cell towers obsolete.
The mayor this week followed up with a letter to the editor of this newspaper confirming that the topic was off the table. “The committee will continue to pursue non-tower solutions to improve cell service and will add several members of the community to the committee,” the mayor wrote.
One of the new members is Jessica Van Hagn, president of the Village Improvement Society, one of those who passionately spoke out against the project at the February 16 meeting.
Mayor Sander last week removed Trustee Dianne Skilbred from the committee, informing her by email that she was off the panel, she said. She had announced her strong opposition to the project at the meeting.
Asked for comment this week, Village Trustee Terry Diat — a member of the committee who since last fall has presented updates on its efforts at the board’s monthly meetings — replied in an email that the village’s poor cell service is “an important concern.”
“It’s prudent to continue to explore options to address this issue in conjunction [with efforts] to protect our natural surroundings and environment,” she wrote. “Hopefully, North Haven one day will be able to provide sufficient cell coverage in all areas in a manner that a majority will agree upon.”
The other original member of the committee is former Trustee candidate Chris Fiore, who is now a Planning Board member. He wrote in a public email thread soon after the February 16 meeting that the opponents’ concerns had been “heard and accepted” and he personally saw no reason “to pursue this project any further.”
Ms. Diat had reported at the start of the February 16 meeting that the committee had not yet finalized a plan to present to the board and the public — it’s “still very much a work in progress,” she said — and explained that public hearings would be required once a plan was ready.
She reported then that the committee had chosen one of five proposals that it had solicited from cell phone companies and tower builders; that it had negotiated favorable terms; and, after “extensive vetting,” had selected one of 45 publicly owned parcels “in a deeply wooded area unlikely to be visible” to residents north of Village Hall as the tower site.
Opponents, including attorney Monica Caan of Stock Farm Lane, charged that the project seemed to have been pursued behind closed doors and without public oversight. She vowed that she and her neighbors would spare no expense to fight it.
In an email this week, her husband William Caan wrote there was “a clear conflict of interest” in the committee’s selection of a cell tower builder who lives in North Haven, which he called “an inside job.”
Ms. Skilbred confirmed that the committee selected Pheonix Tower, one of the five companies that had submitted proposals. Its executive chairman is former Sag Harbor Village Trustee Tim Culver, a former Sag Harbor resident who now lives in the North Haven Point community. With the project now dead, Mr. Culver commented in a phone interview this week, “The residents have to want it.”
About a decade ago, opposition quashed another proposal from a different company to locate a cell tower on the same site.
The Village Board amended the zoning code then to bar cell towers by limiting them to accessory structures no more than 35 feet in height; the proposed tower might have to be as high as 140 feet.
As Ms. Diat noted at the board meeting, a public hearing would have been required before any change to the code could have been adopted, in addition to a separate hearing before the Village Board could have approved the tower plan itself.