By Mike Adams, Josh Blake and Kayla Lupoli-Nolan
Plans to build a 120-foot cell tower in Smithtown to improve phone reception are being held up as the government and community consider the proposal’s potential ramifications.
The tower, proposed to the Town Board at a Jan. 25 meeting, would provide service to areas of Smithtown with notoriously poor cellphone reception, particularly Kings Park’s nearby San Remo neighborhood.
“I’m tired of living in a town where I can’t get any cell service,” Smithtown resident Diane Carrol said at the meeting. “I’m tired of passing Caleb Smith and calling it a “dead zone”.
The site’s location near several parks has prompted the town to consider authorizing a study from the environmental impact board on whether the towers construction could be harmful to the environment.
The environmental impact study would take a year to complete.
“If the environmental department decides to recommend that an environmental impact statement is necessary, that could potentially be a year or two-year process,” Town Planner David Flynn said. “If they don’t recommend an impact statement…the total process could take between four and six months.”
Some townspeople have also voiced concerns over the effects of potentially harmful radiation emanating from the tower upon its completion.
“To me, such a tower represents a death knell for Smithtown,” Smithtown resident Corey Geske wrote in a letter to the Town Board. “Studies show cancer rates triple and more than quadruple within the 1,312-foot ring of RF radiation at 100 times normal that will extend east of the H20 Restaurant.”
Government officials are not permitted to factor health or environmental concerns over radiation into decisions regarding cell tower construction according to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Both the US government and organizations like the World Health Organization report there are no documented health risks that stem from being near a cell tower.
“There is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak RF signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects,” a 2006 WHO report on electromagnetic fields said.
Should the current plan be accepted, the tower would sit atop commercial property off Main Street in Smithtown, near the Nissequogue River, Caleb Smith State Park and the town’s landmark bull statue.
While the area around the Nissequogue River is known to be home to several bald eagles, environmental experts doubt the tower will cause the birds harm.
“The Nissequogue River corridor is great Bald Eagle habitat, and I am aware of sightings, but I have not heard of a breeding confirmation there,” Robert Grover, Director of Environmental Sciences for the Greenman-Pedersen Inc. design firm, said. “In any event, I doubt that a cell tower a third of a mile away would be detrimental to eagle activity.”
Some Smithtown residents believe a 120-foot tower across the street from the town’s Stop & Shop would make for an unpleasant sight.
“Would I object to it?” Virginia Schmidt said. “Yeah, I think I would. I would prefer to look in that direction and see the trees.”
Better cell phone reception in the area might also hamper social interaction between townspeople, Schmidt argued.
“We’re too dependent upon cell phones,” Schmidt, who does not own a cellphone, said. “I think we’re too dependent upon electronics, we just don’t converse with each other anymore.”
Other residents like 21-year-old Christopher Grasso, who lives in Kings Park downhill from the proposed tower site, feel the benefits of a tower outweigh the drawbacks.
“I think the pros of having service for the whole area of San Remo outweigh the cons of a slight eyesore across the street.” Grasso said.
Originally, the town attempted to patch the service gap with a series of less obtrusive micro towers placed atop telephone poles in the neighborhood, but those devices proved largely ineffective.
“They really didn’t work,” San Remo resident Steve Weber said. “In these small towns that have many of these smaller micro towers, your phone was constantly switching from tower to tower. So, when that happens, every time you switch there’s an opportunity for that call to be disrupted.”
A former member of the town’s environmental impact board, Weber stressed the need to balance the concerns the tower’s detractors have with the benefits its proponents promote.
“It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, there’s deals and compromises that can be made that take everyone into account,” Weber said.
“You have to take a look and try to find a balance between where everyone’s happy or no one’s happy. Because if some people are happy, some people aren’t happy, you know you’ve made a compromise.”