Despite calls by county officials to scale back its proposal, the Town of Hempstead Tuesday approved restrictions on new cell phone towers and antennas that experts say are among the most stringent in the nation, setting up a potential legal showdown with wireless companies.
The zoning ordinance, which passed 7-0, prohibits new wireless infrastructure closer than 1,500 feet to homes, day care centers, schools and houses of worship, unless the company can prove there is an urgent coverage gap, town officials said.
The new rule "effectively prohibits the location of new facilities within the town," the Nassau Planning Commission wrote to the Town Board on Monday. The commission, which issues recommendations on local zoning laws, said the town should loosen the 1,500-foot ban.
But town officials said the new regulations were needed to control the unchecked proliferation of wireless infrastructure. "I think this is a powerful one-two punch on behalf of our residents," said Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray at Tuesday's meeting. "We will simply make sure that the wireless industry is put through their paces."
The ordinance exempts governments because those are considered in the public interest.
Besides the 1,500-foot ban, the new ordinance requires cell phone companies to conduct sophisticated studies of wireless coverage in the area, notify the public of the radiation emanating from the towers and produce maps of all wireless apparatus within a 2-mile radius of the proposed structure.
And it forces companies to pay up to $17,000 for the town to hire consultants to review each application. The consultant will advise the Board of Zoning Appeals on the applications. Richard Comi of the Center for Municipal Solutions had been hired as a consultant by the town to help draft the ordinance and most likely will review those applications, town officials said.
The measure comes as a groundswell of public opposition has arisen to a wave of new cell phone tower and transmitter construction in Hempstead and elsewhere on Long Island. At the same time, public demand for more reliable, faster wireless technology has never been greater.
Town residents said Tuesday they were worried about diving property values in neighborhoods with cell towers.
"We are concerned about aesthetics and property values. Cell phone towers should not be in residential neighborhoods," said Jeanne Byrnes, 39, a Wantagh resident who spoke at the public hearing Tuesday and is fighting a T-Mobile application to place six new antennas in her neighborhood.
But town officials said Tuesday the new rules do not apply to proposed new antennas in Wantagh and Merrick because those applications are pending, and delaying them further violates federal law. The Federal Communications Commission regulates placement of towers and antennas, and municipalities have limited jurisdiction.
Elsewhere, those who seek more regulation of wireless infrastructure say that not enough is known about health effects. The federal government explicitly prohibits governments from restricting such infrastructure based on health concerns, since evidence to date has found no link between the towers and illness.
The ordinance's passage came a day after the Nassau Planning Commission issued a letter calling for changes. Besides calling for an easing of the 1,500-foot ban, the planning commission said antennas that can be hidden or located on shared towers should not receive the same level of scrutiny as new construction.
Wireless companies Tuesday called the measure one of the most restrictive they had seen and urged the Town Board to delay its vote until changes could be made. "It puts tremendous barriers on new wireless infrastructure," said Verizon Wireless attorney Alfred Amato.
Other towns have adopted or are considering zoning ordinances for wireless infrastructure. Last May, Islip adopted restrictions discouraging such installations in residential zones. They require cell phone companies, when seeking to place a tower in or within 500 feet of a residential zone, to show there is no reasonable alternative site in an industrial or commercial zone. An applicant for a cell tower must also show that the transmitter cannot be placed instead on an existing structure.
With Jennifer Maloney
MORE ABOUT TRANSMITTERS
What is a transmitter?
It generates a radio wave at a particular frequency, encodes information in that wave and sends it into the air.
What kinds of devices rely on transmitters?
Any two or more that communicate voice or data over a distance without a wire. Examples: cell phones, baby monitors, some televisions, wireless video game controls, and garage and car door openers.
Are all transmitters the same?
No. They produce signals at different frequencies depending on the type of communication they are designed for. Signal strength, which is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, weakens the farther it moves from the transmitting facility.
Do transmitters operate all the time?
No. Only when they are being used to produce a transmission. For instance, a transmitter used to relay chatter on walkie-talkies will only send signal when someone speaks. However, at cell phone base stations there are some transmitters that send signal constantly.
A few uses of wireless telecommunications transmitters:
Mobile phones, smart phones
Police and fire communications
AM and FM radio
Paging and messaging
Fast-food takeout windows
Air traffic control
Taxi, truck and school bus dispatch