Springs Fire District commissioners admitted to residents on Monday night that they had not followed the required steps of compliance with a state-mandated review before approving a cellular tower, or monopole, at their headquarters on Fort Pond Boulevard—but added that the process is now under way.
The tower, more than 150 feet tall, was erected last month at the northern edge of the property. Antennas have not yet been installed on it.
Commissioner Pat Glennon, the board’s chairman, said that the district has hired an engineering company, VHB Engineering, to complete an Environmental Assessment Form. Once the form is completed, according to State Environmental Quality Review Act procedures, the district will have to hold a public hearing and vote on whether to deem the project as having no significant impacts on the surrounding community and environment. If the tower’s presence is found to have significant impacts, a more detailed review of the proposal, and the available alternatives, would have to be conducted.
Mr. Glennon said the district commissioners resolved to allow the tower to be built in November 2013.
Residents of Springs, more than three dozen of whom turned out for Monday night’s district meeting, blasted the commissioners for what they perceived to have been a conscious effort to conceal the approval and construction of the tower from residents, who had mounted furious opposition to a similar proposal nine years ago.
“We are here to express what can only be described as outrage at how this department has conducted itself in erecting this tower, more or less under the cover of darkness,” said David Kelley, a resident of Talmage Farm Lane, where homes sit, literally, in the shadow of the new monopole. “It was a cell tower that we were promised would not be built. This is a shameful act.”
Other residents threatened legal action, a potential that seemed to be gaining traction following the acknowledgment at the meeting that the SEQRA process had not been completed prior to the erection of the tower.
Mr. Glennon and other commissioners defended their actions, saying they had never intended to conceal the project plans from residents, were not aware that they had to follow the SEQRA process prior to issuing permission for the pole’s installation, and had approved the pole in the interest of improving emergency service communications and lessening the burden of the district’s operations on property taxes.
The district, according to Mr. Glennon, will receive $3,000 per month for each cellular provider that mounts an antenna in the monopole, with as many as five providers. To date, he said, only AT&T has contracted to put an antenna in the tower.
In addition to the cellular equipment, which will be contained inside the pole’s frame, the tower will also have six “whip” antennas affixed to its top, which will provide connections to local and Suffolk County emergency communications.
Improving communications and giving the district the option to upgrade or change its dispatching and communications systems in the future were the main impetus for allowing the tower installation, Mr. Glennon told residents.
“Ten years ago, our dispatching fees were $35,000 a year—today, they’re $135,000,” the commissioner said. “The county offers dispatching for free. Not that we’re doing that at this time, but we may in the future.”
Mr. Glennon said after the meeting that the district has a five-year contract with East Hampton Village to provide dispatching services.
The tower will also, however, fill in gaps in the cellular service in Springs, which residents might have to use to call 911, and in the communications network that the department uses to rally its members. Mr. Glennon shared an email sent on Monday from East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo saying that poor cellular service in Springs poses a safety risk to residents and his officers.
Other emergency responders said that cellular service was a problem throughout the district, inhibiting the ability of people in a wide range of neighborhoods, as well as from within the Springs School, from dialing out on cellphones reliably.
“Today, a fire will reach 2,000 degrees in three minutes,” said Dawn Green, a Springs Fire Department volunteer. “We have over a third of our district that has little to no [cellular] service.”
But residents countered that if the need for better communications was so pressing, the district should have made the case to residents.
“If this is so necessary, why did it come about in such a secretive manner?” asked resident David Buda. “If it’s such a good idea, and is the least intrusive means of satisfying a need, you should have been more forthcoming. What we mainly need is an explanation, a forthright explanation of how that tower was put up.”
Mr. Glennon said that the district took the plans for the tower to the town’s Building Department and was told by the town attorney’s office that, as a municipal entity, the district did not have to comply with town zoning codes. He said that the commissioners did not realize that did not mean they wouldn’t have to comply with SEQRA.
The district first considered installing a cellular monopole on its property in 2006. Prior to proceeding with the project, the commissioners sent a letter to district residents informing them of the plans and were met with a deluge of objections.
Since they again took up consideration of installing a cellular tower in mid-2013, the only public notification of their plans was a small legal notice in The East Hampton Star in December 2013 by the company that will operate the antenna.
Residents said that the silence from the district amounted to conscious deception and a disastrous public relations policy by the commissioners, one that might well lead to a court fight.
“This is a conversation that should be happening without the tower presently existing,” said Krae Van Sickle. “To be real, I think it would be a miracle for you to take that tower down and start over the way it should have been done in the first place … so there’s going to be a lawsuit.”
The commissioners’ next meeting will be on June 8.