Hempstead Town loosens cellphone tower rules

A cell tower is situated next to the A cell tower is situated next to the Nassau BOCES Children's Readiness Center in North Bellmore. (July 24, 2013) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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The Town of Hempstead has removed the strictest part of its ordinance regulating the placement of cellphone towers and antennas but approved a revised law industry critics say still is too onerous.

The law town officials once touted as the country's toughest was revised by a 6-0 town board vote earlier this month and requires a building permit to install wireless communication equipment at new or existing sites.

The law also calls for obtaining a special use permit for new locations following a public hearing before the town's appeals board, which would require applicants to show a need for improved wireless coverage in the area.

The town eliminated the most contentious provision of the old law, approved in September 2010, which banned new antennas within 1,500 feet of residences, churches and schools.

"We have subsequently amended our law to continue to protect the rights of local residents against overzealous wireless communications giants to the greatest extent allowable by law," town spokesman Michael Deery said in a statement.

Manhattan-based attorney Robert D. Gaudioso, who represents T-Mobile and was at a hearing about the new law, urged the board to reject the ordinance, saying its application requirements are burdensome and "just simply bad for business in the Town of Hempstead."

"I think this impedes the ability to provide public utility wireless services to your residents, your businesses, and more importantly to your public safety responders," he said. "We are all aware how vital communications are in the wake of superstorm Sandy."

T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and A&T Wireless filed a federal lawsuit in October 2010 over the town's original law. They argued the town's "regulatory scheme" had the practical effect of banning new towers and transmitters, a violation of federal and state laws. The suit is pending.

The wireless companies argued the town was wrong in banning wireless facilities through the 1,500-foot "no antenna zone." They also said the town imposed "unreasonable or discriminatory" fees and a "burdensome and lengthy" application process.

Spokesmen for Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, Sprint, PCIA -- The Wireless Infrastructure Association and CTIA -- The Wireless Association, declined to comment.

"We believe that now that we have fine-tuned our ordinance to meet federal regulations, they would discontinue the lawsuit because there aren't any legitimate grounds to continue it," said Charles Kovit, chief deputy town attorney, adding that federal law requires local authorities to grant requests to modify existing facilities.

The application requirements for a special use permit under the new law include conducting a "balloon test" before a hearing for a proposed new tower. The test involves placing a brightly colored balloon 3 feet in diameter in the air at the height of the proposed tower for at least four hours to prove minimal "visual intrusion."

In May, the town board retained counsel to prosecute in Nassau County District Court cases involving existing and proposed wireless communications installations. Under the law, the town could collect a penalty of $500 a day for offenses.

"We have found in the process of going through the lawsuit that the companies have many violations of our building code existing at their cell sites," Kovit said. "We are making them come in to comply."

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