CRANFORD, NJ — An attorney who assists homeowners with cell tower lease negotiations says there are ways to enhance the aesthetics of cell towers like the 130-foot-tall one Union County College proposes building on its campus.
In a Jan. 11 interview with LocalSource, Hugh Odom, founder of Tennessee-based Vertical Consultants, said telecommunication giants call the process by which a cell tower is camouflaged or concealed “stealthing.” Odom is not professionally involved with the current local controversy concerning the proposed UCC tower.
Monopoles such as the one UCC is seeking to erect on the southwestern edge of its campus can be made to resemble trees, flagpoles, clock towers or other features. Odom said some towers erected on church property have been made into crosses.
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 to the immediate west of the William Sperry Miller Observatory.
According to the minutes from UCC’s Buildings and Ground Committee meeting 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.”
Whether the monopole will be made to resemble one of surrounding trees or something else has not been decided.
“The reason they don’t do that, the reason you drive down the street today and see cell towers that are ugly as sin, they’re poles sticking out of the ground, is because of a few basic things,” Odom said.
First, it could cost thousands of dollars to make a monopole look like, say, a flagpole. But, more importantly, Odom said it could “limit the utility” of the tower and therefore its potential profitability.
“Let’s say AT&T wants to put something up,” he said. “It limits the utility of that structure because you can’t as easily mount equipment. It doesn’t have as much space. It’s like building an apartment complex and instead of having 10 units, you only have six because of the way it’s built. So, you have less ability to use it and your utility goes down as well. You also limit the ability to drive additional revenue by having another carrier attach to that structure because of the limited mounting area, things of that nature.”
Several township residents, some of whom have formed the Residents Against Union County College Cell Tower, urged the county Board of Chosen Freeholders at its Nov. 8 meeting to halt the construction of the tower.
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.
She also said the Brookside Place Elementary School would be just one-half mile away from it.
At the meeting, residents voiced concerns about the aesthetics of the cell tower, which, if it is built on the small hill near the observatory, would extend an additional 10 feet into the sky.
Some residents also said they feared the tower would diminish the values of their homes and others said they were worried it would affect their health.
Odom said he has “never seen research that said it increases the value” of nearby properties. And, as far as perceived health risks, he said telecommunications companies are increasingly being made to erect signs and barricades near cell towers.
“They say, ‘There are some health hazards of getting too close to this for a sustained period of time. You need to stay back beyond a certain area,’” Odom said. “It gives notice to those things. So, I would tell you that, while there are no definitive studies that this is going to be an issue, it is something you’re seeing more and more, kind of alerts to the possibility of it being an issue.”
For property owners such as UCC to maintain health and safety oversight, a lot depends on how they structure the lease.
“With the health and safety situation, the one thing they need to make sure of, if I were the college, I would sit there and say, ‘OK, I want to make sure I’m not causing an issue to my students. I’m not causing an issue to the neighborhood, etc.,’” Odom said. “So, you need to have something in that agreement with the company you are leasing to that says, ‘I need a way for you — that being the tenant, say AT&T or Verizon — I need you to have an obligation every so often to provide me with evidence that you are within certain standards in regards to health and safety standards.”
Odom said by having such a stipulation in a lease, a property owner such as UCC can have “an affirmative way” of making sure it is not in violation of governmental guidelines.
Odom said that in many agreements with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and others, the companies follow the agreement from the outset. However, the wording in the agreements often allows them to “change everything on Day Two.”
“Think of it as a retail space,” he said about the cell tower. “Think of it as a Verizon store and Verizon says, ‘We’re going to put all this stuff up there.’ The school says ‘OK.’ Verizon the next day can tear all that down and change it all and do whatever they want with that space. The mentality for a cell tower company, be it a Verizon or whoever it may be, is that once they sign that lease, they can do whatever they want to it.
“They have carte blanche rights to do whatever they want to inside the space as long as its legal. So, if you are in a situation in which you are allowing that, then not only can you not have oversight with generally how your property is impacted but flowing down to the health and safety, you have no oversight to know exactly what’s going on on your property and how do ever maintain it to anybody else?”
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.
Zoning officer Ronald Johnson said the township has not received an application to build a cell tower in the past few months.
UCC was to appear before the Cranford Planning Board on Wednesday, Jan. 16, to continue its application to build a condenser unit and cooling tower on the roof of its library.