By JOHN T. WARD
Hundreds of Little Silver residents packed a school auditorium Monday night to give elected officials an earful about their decision to allow a 95-foot-tall cell tower to be built just 500 feet away.
Few appeared placated by either an account of how the tower came to be or the assurances of a telecom engineer that it’s safe.
“I lived in the era when smoking was good for the throat,” a surgeon, Dr. Michael Goldfarb, told the town council, which moved its semimonthly meeting to the Markham Place School from the nearby borough hall in anticipation of the turnout. “I lived through the era when asbestos was not a problem.”
“You cannot show us any clinical studies to prove those towers are safe, yet for the past 12 days I uncovered hundreds of thousands of studies that hold the contrary,” and say they result in genetic mutations, hindered learning, insomnia and more, said Westwood Road resident Tara Kelly. “We’re talking about the continuation of low-frequency, pulsated radiation coming from the tower, eight hours a day, five days a week as my three children sit in this school.”
The monopole, built last month by Verizon, is about 500 feet from the school, and adjacent to borough hall, where it replaced a small lattice tower used for communications by police, fire and EMT responders. For years, the older device suffered from spotty performance, and was temporarily knocked out of service by Hurricane Sandy in October, 2012.
But after Verizon moved to install cell “nodes” on the roof of the nearby CVS Pharmacy in 2014, and faced with the likelihood that the industry’s other three major players would do the same, the council negotiated a deal under which those devices and the town’s emergency radio system would be combined, Councilman Don Galante told the crowd.
The town had little latitude, he said. The federal Telecom Act of 1996 prohibited local governments from blocking the installation of industry equipment, he said, adding, “we don’t have to agree with it, but we do have to follow it.”
He said the town had negotiated a deal under which Verizon would build the tower and sell it to the borough for $1, and then pay the town yearly rent totaling $1.3 million over 25 years. The addition of three other cellular service providers is expected to add close to $4 million to that sum, Galante said.
“I can’t stop it,” said Galante, whose daughter-in-law teaches at the school. “All I can do is try to control where it goes.”
But the size of the tower, which looms over borough hall and the heart of downtown, took many residents by surprise, and gave rise to a grassroots effort to get it removed and relocated in time for the start of the next school year.
The effort included the creation of a Little Silver Against the Cell Tower Facebook page and a proliferation of lawns signs proclaiming “Get the Cell Out.”
The backlash caught elected officials off guard, too, and they have moved to address the concerns.
“We did not anticipate the volume of discontent,” Mayor Bob Neff told the audience, many of whom complained that the town had not adequately informed them of what was coming, and made it easier for Verizon than for the typical resident wanting to erect a fence.
Neff said he had formed an ad hoc committee that includes objectors to the tower to explore ways to address residents concerns, and the group was “moving quickly” to come up with a strategy.
But the town, with a nearly-completed tower and lease agreement with Verizon, is in “a very difficult situation,” said Neff.