Crews working for the Springs Fire District mounted several antennas for firefighters’ emergency communications on the cellular tower at its Fort Pond Boulevard property over the weekend, despite a ZBA order last week to revoke the building permits issued in 2014 for the tower.
District Board of Commissioners chairman Pat Glennon said last week that the district would install the antennas even as its commissioners and their attorneys discuss how to proceed following Tuesday’s revocation of the tower’s building permits by the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals.
“We are reviewing all our options,” Mr. Glennon said. “But we are moving forward with putting our equipment on the tower. It’s a communications tower and we need these antennas to improve our emergency systems.”
A crane arrived at the Springs Fire Department firehouse on Saturday morning and crews spent the weekend installing wiring and power supply systems for the antennas and mounted the antennas themselves on Monday.
The antennas will increase the range of department VHF radios as well as boost the strength of signals to Springs Fire Department members’ emergency pagers, Mr. Glennon said. They could be operational by the end of the month, he added.
No cellular telephone antennas can be installed on the tower, Mr. Glennon said, because the private cellular companies would each have to get permits from the town to install equipment, which will not be possible until the legality of the tower itself is settled.
An attorney for the district, Carl Irace, noted that the ZBA ruling issued last Tuesday does not take effect until it is filed in the Town Clerk’s office—which it had not been as of Monday morning—so the building permit for the tower was still valid when the antennas were installed. Mr. Irace said he did not advise the district of that fact and guessed that it had been a coincidence of logistics that the district had ordered the antennas to be installed after the ruling, since the district has been working on the assumption that they are exempt from town zoning controls.
“It has been the district’s position all along that once the town issued the building permit there isn’t any other jurisdiction the town has over the district,” Mr. Irace said. “The building permit was the required inter-governmental participation. That was the town’s opportunity.”
Late last Tuesday, the members of the Town ZBA disagreed. In a 4-1 vote, the board revoked the building permit for the 150-foot monopole tower after determining that the permit was issued in error by town building inspectors. Don Cirillo was the lone member to dissent from the finding.
The ZBA ruled that even though the fire district is a municipal entity, which has exempted other districts from review of cell towers, it must submit its application for further consideration by the town to determine if the project warrants exemption from zoning.
Mr. Irace had argued to the ZBA that the fire district, as an independent municipality, is exempt from town zoning requirements, much like a school district would be when it constructs an addition to its school.
The town had taken such a position when the Amagansett Fire District proposed a cellular tower a decade ago. At the time, the Town Attorneys office supported the stance and a memo issued to that effect was referred to again in 2014 when building inspectors issued the Springs permits.
Attorneys representing neighbors of the firehouse property countered that such immunity applies only if the public interests of the community outweigh the public interest in applying the zoning code, a decision that should be made by a qualified panel—which the building inspector alone is not, they argued. The Springs permits, and possibly the Amagansett permits and others, were therefore issued in error, they said.
The district had also argued that the challenge by the neighbors, which came only when the tower was erected on the fire district property last spring, was too late, coming some six months after the building permits were issued. Neighbors said there had been no public notice.
Mr. Cirillo had sided with the district in that argument as well, pointing out that the tower had been discussed at more than a dozen public meetings in 2013, 2014 and 2015, according to minutes provided by the district. The rest of the ZBA, however, found that since there had been little or no official public notice of the plans prior to their discussion at the meetings, that the neighbors’ challenge was still timely.
Mr. Glennon said that the district commissioners have not decided whether to take the ZBA’s findings to court, and ask a judge to rule whether the district should be exempt from the town process, or whether to go back to the town, presumably to the Planning Board, and make the case for exemption to a new board. Mr. Glennon said he was not optimistic that a different town agency would take a different stance from the ZBA, which he said was driven by political allegiances. The neighbor leading the challenge to the tower’s legality, David Kelley, is the brother of town Democratic Party campaign chairman Chris Kelley.
“We feel that the decisions that were made were not made based on the facts, a judge would have to be more up-front,” Mr. Glennon said. “It might be better to get it out of the town and take the politics out of it.”