By JOHN T. WARD
The Little Silver council hired an attorney Monday night to help it determine if it’s stuck with a new a cell tower that’s dialed up widespread anger in the borough.
As special counsel, Kevin Starkey is expected to start out by reviewing some two years worth of correspondence and other records for guidance on how the governing body might proceed in dealing with the tower’s sole user so far: Verizon Wireless.
“I suppose what everybody wants to hear is, ‘here’s the plan that’s in place to make it disappear,'” Mayor Bob Neff told the audience near the end of a lengthy regular council session. “I can’t give that to you,” he said.
“Everything is on the table” in terms of options, he said.
The new 105-foot monopole tower went up this spring at borough hall in the heart of the business district — and about 500 feet away from the Markham Place middle school and playing fields. It also looms over nearby homes.
Last month, hundreds of residents packed the school auditorium to blast officials about the tower, which some said they had no idea was coming, or didn’t realize what a “monstrosity” it would be, in the words of one. It replaced a slightly shorter, but slimmer, lattice-style structure that had carried the borough’s police and fire communications equipment.
Caught off-guard by the backlash, the council assembled an ad hoc committee to, among other tasks, explore the borough’s options regarding a newly inked 25-year lease with Verizon Wireless, which has begun using its transmission equipment on the pole. The other three leading players in the telecom industry — AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint — are expected to also want space on the tower.
In recent weeks, the borough and Verizon have communicated solely through their respective attorneys, Neff said.
Demands from objectors to the pole’s presence led the council to hire Starkey, Neff said at an unusually crowded workshop meeting Monday evening.
Starkey’s hire was also defensive, as the borough braces itself for possible lawsuits by its own residents, Neff said. Because of her role in crafting the Verizon deal, borough Attorney Meghan Bennett Clark may be called as a witness in the event there’s litigation, officials noted.
Starkey, of the Brick Township firm Starkey Kelly Kenneally Cunningham & Turnbach, has extensive experience in municipal affairs, including the negotiation of cell tower agreements, said Councilman Dan O’Hern, himself a lawyer who formerly served as Red Bank’s borough attorney. Under a contract that runs to the end of the year, Starkey is to be paid $165 an hour.
Starkey was not present at the meeting.
What he’ll be doing in particular, and what his efforts might yield, were among the questions asked by residents that Neff and other officials had limited answers to. Officials said they expected Starkey will attend the next council meeting, scheduled for August 7, and be available to answer inquiries.
Starkey will also be asked to investigate whether other telecom service providers can be blocked from installing equipment on the pole until the Verizon issue is resolved. None have yet signed leases, though officials said last month that their presence on the pole was expected to yield $4 million in rent to the borough over 25 years, in addition to the $1.3 million Verizon is contracted to pay in that time.
Meantime, the council has been paying a consultant to conduct regular monitoring of electromagnetic frequencies at the school and elsewhere within reach of the tower’s signal. Readings have consistently been “well within safety standards,” Neff said.