After years of shaky signals and rerouted 911 calls, the cellphone tower at Smithtown Landing Country Club is inching toward new heights that officials say will address service deficiencies that have affected emergency calls.
Last month, Smithtown Town officials voted 5-0 to approve a special-exception petition permitting SiteTech Wireless LLC to increase the cellphone tower's height from 75 feet to 125 feet.
The tower's carriers, AT&T and Verizon, experience service deficiencies in the area, according to the applicant's petition to the town board. The tower's current height is insufficient to provide full coverage to the area, causing poor townwide radio communication for police, the fire service and the highway department, and delays during emergency calls that could potentially endanger lives, said John Valentine, Smithtown public safety director.
Instead of being captured by New York's 911 system, emergency calls are occasionally directed to Connecticut, Valentine said. The calls are then rerouted to the Suffolk County 911 receivers, a process that can cost precious seconds in a health emergency.
Cell service is unreliable near the Kings Park bluff and along the Nissequogue River, a popular recreational area in town that offers boating, canoeing and other activities. Several issues with water accidents have occurred, said Councilman Edward Wehrheim. The last fatal accident was in 2011, when Police Officer Patrick Luca, 41, drowned in a kayaking accident in the Nissequogue River.
The town has been told that the extra 50 feet will clear up the issues, Valentine said. He added that cell towers are typically constructed at 125 feet, but that the tower's placement along an environmentally sensitive area, the Nissequogue River Corridor, impeded construction.
In 2010, SiteTech Wireless LLC erected the 75-foot tower without obtaining a permit from the DEC. However, since any structure in a scenic corridor above 34 feet requires the DEC's approval, the town was penalized with a $750 fine, said a DEC representative. The fee was paid by SiteTech Wireless LLC, said Smithtown Town attorney Matthew Jakubowski.
Three years later, SiteTech Wireless LLC sought to modify the cell tower, and in October 2014, the DEC approved the town's request, subject to vegetation planting at Short Beach and Smithtown Landing Country Club, and a storm-water retention project on Juniper Avenue.
Valentine said the trade-off with the DEC is worth it, and that the conditions are reasonable.
"If we save one life by doing this, that's it," he said. "When you're in the water, things happen quickly and minutes count, so those minutes are precious, and if this saves one life moving forward, you can't put a price tag on that."
Cell tower timeline
The cellphone tower project must get an OK from Smithtown's Board of Site Plan Review, but the town board has signaled its approval:
April 7, 2015: Town board issues a Coastal Consistency Determination, or an official set of policies guiding waterfront development, and approves the application subject to vegetation plantings and storm water remediation.
May 21: Town board adopts a State Environmental Quality Review Act Negative Declaration, stating that the project will not have a significant detrimental effect on the environment.
June 2: Town board approves SiteTech Wireless LLC's special exception petition to increase the cellphone tower's height.