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Need to send a text or selfie in East Hampton? Good luck 

Even before people started relocating to Suffolk County

Even before people started relocating to Suffolk County because of the COVID-19 pandenic, poor cell service persisted through the Twin Forks, and might be at its worst in East Hampton Town. Credit: John Roca

Opposition to new cell towers over the years has left the East End with large swaths of cellular dead zones that have worsened since people started flocking to the area from New York City in search of a safer haven from the coronavirus.

Cell reception long has been spotty in many areas of eastern Long Island, but plans to build towers over the years have been met with bad reception from the public, with residents filing lawsuits citing health concerns over living near a tower, as well as their visual impacts.

In East Hampton Town, where reception might be the worst, officials now plan to work with a consultant to develop a strategy to improve cellular coverage. This follows rallying efforts led by venture capitalist Alan Patricof and letters from frustrated residents about the issue.

“The big difference now is that so many people are out and working here,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said. “They’re using a huge amount of data. It’s not just cellular, it’s also been internet service.”

Nearly 5,000 city residents permanently changed their mailing addresses and nearly 10,000 residents temporarily changed their residences to Suffolk County from March until the end of June, according to U.S. Postal Service data. At the height of the pandemic, on April 14, 7,837 people in New York City tested positive for the virus versus 816 that same day in Suffolk.

In East Hampton Town, calls often are dropped when traveling through Wainscott, and a beach selfie from Montauk can go unposted. Van Scoyoc said one potential solution would be to designate “opportunity sites,” or locations for service providers to lease from the town and build a tower.

“It’s a concept we need to look at,” he said. “That way we can ensure there is even coverage. It’s important to have a comprehensive look townwide to see how we can better fill those gaps and capacity issues.”

The town board voted 5-0 at its Aug. 6 meeting to seek proposals from telecommunications consultants to help develop what the town in a news release called “a comprehensive coverage strategy.” The board also voted 5-0 July 2 to hire attorney John Huber of East Hampton-based Dayton Voorhees & Balsam LLP to assist in updating the town code to comply with Federal Communications Commission regulations and to review cellular communication applications.

A Verizon spokesman said bringing wireless service to the East End historically has been challenging, but that several initiatives underway could improve reception this year and in 2021. The town has approved a temporary Verizon tower to be erected on town-owned property on Stephen Hand's Path in Wainscott while the company seeks approval for a permanent tower.

“Verizon is committed to investing in the infrastructure necessary to provide robust wireless services to these traditionally underserved communities, where wireless demand has spiked as a result of migration and work from home trends associated with the pandemic,” communications manager David Weissman said in an email.

AT&T also wants to improve its service, but needs local cooperation, a company spokesperson said.

“It is our hope that they [East Hampton Town] begin taking action more quickly to embrace the importance of wireless deployments to improve connectivity for their residents, including first responders,” AT&T public relations manager Megan Daly said in an email.

Better service can’t come quick enough for people such as Arthur French of Wainscott, who said he was not able to call AAA when his car broke down while driving home from Sag Harbor earlier this month. The 81-year-old retiree and AT&T customer instead walked about a mile and half to his house in the dark. He wasn’t surprised, he said, as he often cannot make a phone call or send a text message from his neighborhood.

“This could be a very dangerous situation because some people don’t have landlines,” he said. “I’m paying full price for a service I don’t get. If it happened every once in a while, that’s one thing. But it’s continual.”

French was one of several residents who contacted Van Scoyoc after an ad highlighting the issue paid for by “Citizens for Better Cellphone Coverage” ran in the Aug. 13 issue of the East Hampton Star. The New York Post reported that Patricof was behind the ad.

"Everybody would say we need to solve the problem," Patricof, who has been living full time in his East Hampton home during the pandemic, told Newsday. "I can't imagine there isn’t some town or local property in some area that is not next to someone’s house [appropriate for a tower] that they can’t figure out a technical solution to get this solved."

Proposed new towers have been met with public opposition and, in some cases, lawsuits from both residents and utility companies. AT&T sued the town in 2017 over the denial of an application to attach cellphone antennas to an existing wind turbine on an East Hampton farm. The town settled with the company and agreed to expedite approval of a new tower on a former town brush dump on Old Northwest Road. But that project again was met with public opposition, and several lawsuits are pending in both state and federal court.

Andrew Campanelli, a Merrick attorney representing East Hampton residents in those lawsuits, said the tower would rise 220 feet above his clients' homes because of its elevated location.

“There’s no reason to put a monster that big in East Hampton,” said Campanelli, who has litigated cell tower opposition cases across over the country. “It’s going to be a total eyesore.”

One option to appease the public in these proposals would be to conceal antennas inside structures like church steeples and cupolas to keep with East End character. Verizon recently was granted approval to attach panel antennas at the Montauk Community Church, and approval is pending for T-Mobile to add a cupola containing antennas and equipment atop a Wainscott moving company’s building.

Even that isn’t a surefire way to gain community approval. An application to build a 50-foot bell tower at the 140-year-old St. Peter’s Chapel in Springs, doubling the height of the current building, was rejected by the town planning board in July. A petition started by a local resident with more than 400 signatures cited the tower’s fall zone, aesthetic impact and its proximity to wetlands as reason to oppose the project.

“Everybody wants coverage,” Van Scoyoc said. “But not everybody is sure they want a tower in their neighborhood.”

East Hampton Town cellular antennas

  • Montauk: 12 locations, including panels attached to a building at the Montauk Lighthouse and in Camp Hero State Park.
  • Amagansett: Two towers, including one at the local firehouse and another on a PSEG property on the Napeague stretch.
  • Wainscott: There is a tower north of East Hampton Airport, although Verizon is in the process of building a replacement tower nearby.
  • East Hampton/Springs: There are eight towers throughout the area, including one at a town recycling center and at town hall.

Pending applications

  • Verizon Wireless is proposing a 120-foot “stealth monopole” on Stephen Hand’s Path in Wainscott.
  • A separate Verizon application seeks to build a 120-foot monopole tower to replace a 60-foot utility pole at a Girl Scouts camp on Flaggy Hole Road in Springs.
  • T-Mobile is seeking to add a rooftop cupola to conceal antennas and equipment atop a moving company’s building in Wainscott.

SOURCE: East Hampton Town

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