CRANFORD, NJ — A cell tower that Union County College proposes to build on the northwestern part of its campus could stretch 140 feet into the air, 10 feet higher than previously reported, according to school documents.
According to the minutes from UCC’s Buildings and Ground Committee meeting on Sept. 25, AT&T is “interested in being a co-locator” along with Verizon for the monopole. In the report given by Lynne Welch, UCC vice president for financial affairs and treasurer, AT&T would be involved “provided the cell tower is 140 feet high; up from the previously mentioned 130 feet.”
Some members of Residents Against Union County College Cell Tower posted on the group’s Facebook page that they believe the small, hilly anchor point of the proposed tower — near the William Miller Sperry Observatory — would make the tower extend as much as 150 feet above most of the surrounding area.
The group was still combing through documents obtained from the school via an Open Public Records Act request earlier this week as it prepared to meet with N.J. state Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, whose district includes Cranford.
The group had also previously reached out to local officials for assistance in halting the construction of the cell tower. Several Cranford residents, fearing that the tower would be an eyesore that would drive down their property values, urged the county Board of Freeholders to stop its construction at the freehold ers’ Nov. 8 meeting in Westfield.
Resident Christine Licata told the freeholders at that meeting that the tower would be built within 1,000 feet of 75 residences, with some as close as 236 feet from the tower, and also within a half mile of Brookside Place Elementary School in Cranford.
Other residents raised concerns about the tower’s aesthetics and the widely held belief that close proximity to cell towers is connected to health issues. Cranford homeowner Julie Exarhakos referred to the proposed tower as “a monstrosity.”
UCC passed a resolution June 26 to move forward with a two-phase project with Verizon. First, the telecommunications giant would install an in-building distributed antenna system to 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, invoked the tragic events of the previous evening, when a gunman shot and killed 12 people and himself at a bar packed with college students in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and 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 concerns.
The federal Clery Act requires colleges participating in federal financial aid programs to maintain and disclose campus crime statistics and security information.
“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 Cleary 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 residents who live near the campus said they don’t have trouble with their mobile phone service and wondered if dollar signs rather than phone signals are motivating UCC to build the tower.
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.”
Cranford resident David McDonald asked at the meeting: “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?”
A 2012 report entitled “Union County College Wireless Communications Needs Assessment — Cellular,” which the residents’ group obtained through an OPRA request, recommended the construction of a monopole for several reasons. The second on the list behind “Best chance of all carriers participating” was because it “maximizes revenue potential for UCC ($24K/yr/carrier).” The report also noted that “monopole cost is estimated at $250K, and may be funded by lead carrier (in exchange for lease abatement).”
Freeholder Chairman Sergio Granados repeatedly stated that the UCC Board of Trustees is an autonomous body and, when asked who will ultimately decide if a cell tower will be constructed, he said, “Union County College fully has the final say.”
Despite Granados’ comment, the Cranford Township Committee already has strengthened the language in its ordinance to amend the township’s land development regulations with regard to cell towers.
At its Nov. 27 meeting, the committee voted to adopt Ordinance No. 2018-17, which requires applicants seeking to construct a cell tower to “present documentary evidence at time of site approval application” regarding the need for such equipment. This would include written documentary evidence by professionals in the telecommunications industry and testimony by a telecommunications expert regarding the “suitability of such tower equipment.”
The ordinance also requires applicants seeking to build a wireless telecommunications tower to provide “documentary evidence that a legitimate attempt has been made to locate the antennas on existing buildings or structures.”
The committee is hoping the ordinance gives it some leverage in the face of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which gave wide-ranging powers to companies such as Verizon and AT&T that seek to construct towers.
“It allows the town to have a little bit more say in where the sites are chosen,” Mayor Tom Hannen said at the meeting committee meeting. “We currently have an ordinance on the books. This adds some additional language to it, and it’s in the land development code. So, this kind of tightens it up a little bit and as I said earlier, gives the township a little more say.”
Hannen said he is not aware of any current applications to build a cell tower, but he pointed out that the application would go through local zoning or planning boards.