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Friday, July 12, 2024

West Islip Residents Protest Proposed Cell Tower

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Hundreds of West Islip residents attended a public hearing last Thursday on a proposed cell tower construction. Residents delivered overwhelming opposition to the plan and offered alternatives.

The meeting was simply the first step in what could turn into a long and arduous process in Crown Castle Communications’ construction of a wireless telecommunications tower. The meeting was held to garner public input on the proposal.

The proposal consists of a 102-foot-tall wireless cell tower on State-owned land at the northeastern onramp from Sunrise Highway (State Route 27) onto the Robert Moses Causeway. The proposed site is in the middle of a densely-populated part of West Islip and along a major tourist route to Captree and Fire islands.

Crown Castle has been New York’s Wireless Telecommunications Site Manager since 1997, pursuant to a contract administered by the New York State Police. The goals of the contract include Crown Castle meeting the State’s obligations under the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which works to provide “fair and open access” to State lands for wireless infrastructure development. Crown’s responsibilities also consist of developing infrastructure to support “governmental, public safety, and commercial wireless communications needs,” promoting the “shared-use of wireless infrastructure to reduce the proliferation of new structures,” and “ensuring compliance with State and federal health, safety, and environmental regulations.”

Murray says the carriers have examined private land for construction, but have found no private sites to be viable, kicking the process to New York State to acquire land for the project.

Thursday evening’s meeting was held in the auditorium at West Islip High School and moderated by Tim Young, Regional Manager for Crown Castle, and Jacqui Phillips Murray, Esq., of the Murray Law Firm.

Young and Murray described the process and what Crown Castle’s role in the project is. The land was identified as a possible candidate for a cell tower to improve connection in the West Islip area. Commercial carriers Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile identified the area as one of improved connection needs. Crown Castle simply installs and maintains the structure, while carriers provide and maintain the service.

The public meeting is the first step in the process. Public comments are taken into account, which, if comments are overall positive, the plan would move forward with an environmental assessment. Murray said that the project is in such an early stage that soil testing and geotechnical investigations have not been completed to see if the site is even viable for construction.

The caveat to the project is that since it’s on State-owned land, it is immune from local zoning ordinances. Elected officials urged Crown Castle to host the public meeting at the high school, as it was a central, accessible location that included areas that would be most affected by the project.

After the panel explained the process and the function of Crown Castle, residents took to the microphone to express their opposition to the project, citing health concerns, proximity to residential areas, and the compromise of natural beauty.

One resident, whose son lives two hundred feet from the proposed site, recommended the tower be built in or adjacent to the Great South Bay, or perhaps one of the bridges connecting the mainland to the barrier islands. Murray said this suggestion would be taken into consideration, although she stipulated that it is uncommon for wireless antennas to be constructed on bridges because of “maintenance purposes.”

The first speaker, as well as a majority of residents who spoke, questioned Murray and Young on possible health impacts to community members living in such close proximity to the tower. Murray and Young could not answer these questions specifically and deferred to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines on human exposure and safety. She said that Crown Castle is obligated to follow those rules, but did not specifically say whether or not the tower could impose health risks. Murray also said that she cannot give a “medical opinion.”

“I understand that our cell reception is not very good in West Islip, but I really don’t want my children and grandchildren to be exposed to hazards,” said the resident. “We’ve seen the State work on projects and do a lousy job of them.”

Another West Islip resident, Al DiBernardo, suggested Captree State Park and Robert Moses State Park as viable alternatives, if Crown Castle is “looking at State property.”

DiBernardo suggested an uninhabited island near the Babylon Cut and the Bergen Point Sewer Plant in West Babylon.

“You have so many different areas that don’t have a lot of people. Why pick an area that is one hundred feet away from somebody’s backyard?” asked DiBernardo. He also said that in terms of aesthetics, the tower would be a “horror show.”

“You don’t expect to see something like that in a nice area like in West Islip, where we pay premium property taxes to live in a nice area. We don’t need it commercialized with some huge tower,” said DiBernardo. “If you asked yourself ‘what would be the worst place we could possibly put something like this?’ That [the proposed site] would be the area.”

Murray said that Crown’s findings show that property values tend to increase after the construction of cell towers, as people like living in areas with good reception.

Andrew Campanelli, Esq. has been retained by West Islip residents concerned about potential health consequences of the power. He pressed the panel if the contract between New York State and Crown Castle requires regular electromagnetic emission tests from the tower. Murray responded that the contact acquiesces to FCC guidelines and that every wireless facility that she has worked on in twenty-seven years has emitted radiated power in “relatively low” levels. Murray did not specify on the proposed guidelines.

Campanelli also asked for points of contact with various levels of State government involved in the project, which Murray did not supply as she said there are “several people” involved and she did not want to give Campanelli the “wrong person’s name.” She accepted a business card to further the contact information to him once she had a clear point of contact.

Only one resident spoke in favor of the project, citing poor cell service interfering with 911 calls in the area.

Residents quickly jumped on his claims saying that the expanded hospitals, namely Good Samaritan, exceed the area’s bandwidth.

“Your calls didn’t go through because the hospital is eating up all the service!” yelled the opponent from the back of the auditorium.

“99% of what I’m hearing is ‘not in my backyard,’” said the resident supportive of the tower.

Opponents of the project heckled the supporter and arguments reached a heated moment before decorum was reestablished.

One opponent said that the community understands that the cell tower is needed, but that the community does not “need any more destruction in West Islip.”

Christina Marks, a Trustee on the West Islip School Board, represented herself as a resident and not the school board. She asked the panel if the FCC study on emissions, regularly referenced by Murray, is updated as wireless technology has changed since its initial publication in 2002. Murray said she does not believe they have updated it.

Marks also asked if carriers would have carte blanche access to the tower, to which Murray said they technically would, although it’s unusual for carriers to visit towers outside normal monthly maintenance checks or impromptu repairs.

Councilman Mike McElwee (R-West Islip) (pictured above), representing the Third District in the Islip Town Council, spoke at the meeting.

“This community has been through a lot. They are very passionate about their community and I just urge you to listen to what they’re saying tonight,” said McElwee. McElwee then dismissed claims of compromised emergency response because of poor coverage by saying he had consulted with departments in the area.

“I’ve talked to all of the chiefs, all of the district commissioners. I spoke to the inspector of the precinct. He went to his communications people. Nobody came back to me to say that there is a concern for that [tower],” said McElwee. He added that there is a “dead spot” and a need for coverage, but asked that Crown Castle seek other locations.

He also said that Crown Castle must demonstrate support from the public and elected officials representing the area and asked if Crown Castle has received said support. Murray said that her team has not sourced any support from elected officials.

Senator Alexis Weik (R-Sayville) (pictured below) also spoke on behalf of the community at the meeting.

“The public felt gypped and they felt like you had been sneaking and working behind their back, which is never a positive thing when you’re trying to work in a community. You should be working with the community, which you clearly were trying to avoid,” said Weik. She added that in Crown Castle’s initial letter to Islip, they intended for a three-minute speaking window at a Town Board meeting to be their public hearing.

“I said ‘Hell no,’ we will help you find a place and you will have a public hearing,” said Weik. She added that a letter from her, Assemblyman Mike Durso (R-Massapequa Park), who represents West Islip proper, and Assemblyman Jarett Gandolfo (R-Sayville), who represents bordering communities, stated their and the public’s opposition to the project.

“Now you have just waited and come forward again and decided you were going to give it another shot,” said Weik. “I’ve been sitting here listening, you have clearly not answered any questions in a satisfactory manner. There’s no need to proceed. We don’t want it. We spoke to our emergency services and they don’t find a need for it.”

Weik said that Crown Castle had tried in September 2023 to find community support for the project, which the community, she, and Assemblymen Durso and Gandolfo opposed.

Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter (R-West Islip) and Suffolk County Legislator Steve Flotteron (R-Brightwaters) have also written letters stating their and their constituents’ opposition to the project.

Matt Meduri
Matt Meduri
Matt Meduri has served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Messenger Papers since August 2023. He is the author of the America the Beautiful, Civics 101, and This Week Today columns. Matt graduated from St. Joseph's University, Patchogue, in 2022, with a degree in Human Resources and worked for his family's IT business for three years. He's also a musician and composer with his sights set on the film industry. Matt has traveled all around the U.S. and enjoys cooking, photography, and a good cup of coffee.