Cranford residents seek to halt cell tower at UCC

WESTFIELD, NJ – Several Cranford residents, fearing that a proposed 130-foot cell tower to be built on the Union County College campus would be an eyesore that would drive down their property values, urged the Union County Freeholders to halt its construction.

Christine Licata told the freeholders at their Nov. 8 meeting in Westfield that the proposed tower — to be built just to the west of the Sperry Observatory — would be within 1,000 feet of 75 homes and some on Princeton Road would be as close as 236 feet. She also said the tower would be built within a half mile of Brookside Place Elementary School in Cranford.

Other residents raised concerns over aesthetics and widely held beliefs that cell towers lead to several health issues. One Cranford homeowner, Julie Exarhakos, referred to the proposed cell tower as “a monstrosity.”

The college passed a resolution on June 26 to move forward with a two-phase project with Verizon. First, the telecommunications giant will install an in-building antenna system that will provide 95 percent coverage throughout the seven main buildings. In the second phase, Verizon would build a 130-foot monopole cell tower.

Joe Hines, Public Safety Director for UCC, justified the tower by invoking the tragic events that occured the previous evening when a gunman shot and killed 12 people and himself at a bar packed with college students in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He said the school needs the cell tower to increase reception in and around the campus for security reasons. He also said that under the Clery Act, schools are required to advise members of the campus community and the surrounding area of any serious security or safety concern.

“We had an incident a couple of months ago where they actually wanted to send a text message of a suspect, but was unable to do so because lack of cell phone service,” Hines said. “The office I occupy, and am I’m responsible for sending out emergency alerts and notifications by law under the Clery Act to our students, I receive zero cell phone coverage. So, if I were to send out a text message through my desktop, in theory, sending out to my cell phone, I have no way of knowing if that message was actually seen by the students.”

Several of the residents who live near the campus said they don’t have trouble with their cell-phone service and wondered if UCC is building the tower for financial reasons.

According to the resolution, Verizon will lease the land from the college for $34,800 with a 2 percent annual increase and a “50 percent co-locator rent paid to the college for a five-year term with the option for four successive five-year renewals to build a 130-foot monopole cell tower on college property that would accommodate four carriers, at no cost to the college.”

And, considering the power the Telecommunications Act of 1996 gives to Verizon and others, residents wondered if they can stop the cell tower’s construction with or without the help of the freeholders.

“As a resident, I will stare at the cell tower every day,” Licata said. “I feel powerless. I see a public educational institution in bed with a telecom so that they both can make money. The law doesn’t apply to them. They will use their legal exemptions within the local municipalities and the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 to strongarm their way into our small residential community and we will bear the financial burden and legal fees to fight this. And, in the end, if we lose, it will lower property values due to the aesthetics and perceived health hazards.”

Cranford resident David McDonald said, “Is this a vehicle that is merely intended to improve the quality of communication on the campus or is it a vehicle with which to generate revenue opportunities?”

Whether the freeholders can or will try to help the Cranford residents is unclear. Chairman Sergio Granados said he noted all the residents’ concerns and complaints. He said he planned to call UCC President Margaret McMenamin the morning after the freeholder meeting. However, he repeatedly stated that the UCC board of trustees are an autonomous body. When one resident asked him who will ultimately decide if a cell tower will be constructed, he said that “Union County College fully has the final say.”

According to UCC’s web site, the Union County Freeholders contributed more than $14 million to support the college’s services to 11,245 students in the 2015-2016 academic year. Granados said that was about the same figure in the most recent budget, too.

Cranford zoning officer Ronald Johnson said on Nov. 9 that Verizon has not made an application for a cell tower.
The Cranford Township Committee had a first reading on an ordinance to amend the township’s land development regulations with regards to cell towers on Nov. 4.

The town is seeking to add language to the ordinance that would, among other things, require applicants to “present documentary evidence … regarding the need for such equipment, exact equipment, layout and coverage areas within” the township. The township is also seeking to make applicants present a report from a “qualified expert” attesting to any proposed tower’s “structural integrity,” whether it meets “minimum safety requirements” according to the Federal Communications Commission regulations and other stipulations.

Licata said she and other residents who live near the campus have been going door to door to inform their neighbors about UCC’s proposed cell tower. She also created a Facebook page, Residents Against Union County College Cell Tower, to document their battle to keep the cell tower from being built.

Among the articles linked to the page is a report from Environmental Health Trust citing a study done by researchers with the Ramazzini Institute in Italy who announced earlier this year that lab animals exposed to environmental levels of cell tower radiation developed cancer.