Opposition to potential Verizon phone tower gets a signal boost

A petition with more than 100 signatures was handed to the Shamong Township Committee as residents vehemently disagreed with a phone tower’s placement in the township.

The petition, which resident Kitty Stanley said had more than 100 signatures from residents, asked the township to “make funds available to approve the hiring of township professionals for the Shamong Township Joint Land Use Board.” The petition added the residents request the township to oppose the construction of a tower at 449 Oakshade Road and to seek out other viable options.

We are a separate entity of the JLUB and we can’t control what they do or direct what they do,” said Mayor Michael Di Croce. “They hear the case and decide on the merits on what to do.

The township’s planning board was sued by Tower North, the applicant for the tower, after the board denied its application in February 2018 for the Opici Wine location. In short, former Superior Court Justice Ronald Bookbinder ruled in favor of Tower North.

Deputy Mayor Tim Gimbel said the issue of poor data connections with Verizon began “well before” 2014 when residents were complaining over the number of dropped calls and telecommuters not having stable internet access.

Other added benefits to the tower’s construction were perceived to be the additional revenue of taxes to the township and ability for first responders to have a reliable network to answer and relay calls.

When the applicant came, they needed to have approvals from the FCC, and the FCC did all types of analysis and had to prove the weakness of the signals and what areas are in need of additional coverage,” said Sue Onorato, township administrator. “That circle was around the old five-points.

Onorato said despite the township’s efforts to propose other township-owned property (including the school district’s, to which they denied it), the Opici Wine location came up as the next best option.

The proposed 140-foot tower, if approved, would carry 3G, 4G LTE and the 5G signals to Verizon Wireless customers in the township. According to FCC documents, a cell tower license was issued for 449 Oakshade Road.

That’s not our read on that, it’s the federal approval,” she said. “Although we own all of this land, it’s not applicable to the permits that were issued.

She went on to say they provided the Stony Creek Ballfields, but because it’s within the Recreational Open Space Inventory, the state denied them until it was removed, which she and Township Solicitor Douglas Heinold said could be a costly and lengthy process.

The reality is that you can spend a lot of money and go through the process, but there’s no guarantee that the state will approve your application,” Heinold said. “You also have to spend additional money to replace the property you’re removing from the site.”

The two added the Pinelands Commission said it wanted the tower to be built only in Regional Growth Areas, to which Shamong has three. Two are occupied largely by homes, one is where Opici Wine is currently.

Onorato said while the township’s zoning laws reflect what the commission has, if the lots proposed don’t fit the commission or the FCC’s guidelines, they will be denied until one is found.

Only Onorato, Heinold and Township Engineer Dante Guzzi sat in the JLUB meetings due to conflicts of interest the committee members and their fill-ins had with the applicants.

Neither Onorato nor Heinold could comment on the specifics within the application itself due to it pending approval, or denial, from the board.

This has been litigated for years,” Di Croce said. “If people say ‘I want to use my phone, but I don’t want a tower,’ federal rulings said you have to allow them where they’re permitted.”

Residents raised concerns over possible radiation to children – the proposed lot abuts Indian Mills Memorial School, however, the area where children could go as far back to is at least 200 feet away.

Resident Eileen Carlos inquired about how many properties the township proposed. Onorato said all open properties in the township were presented to Verizon, only 77 were looked at.

Carlos brought up an ordinance the former committee adopted for cell towers – Ordinance 2000-8 – in regard to where it can be placed in the township.

“When you created the ordinance, it said that it had to go on township property, wouldn’t that have fallen in the hands of the CFP as well?”

Onorato said the township looked at its properties first, but because of the FCC’s permit location, the state’s regulation on open land and the Pinelands regulations, the township was limited on where the tower could go.

Heinold further stated the FCC and federal government cleared the environmental and health concerns associated with cell phone towers more than 20 years ago.

I would add to the request of residents that if the board feels that there are professionals that are suitable for consideration, then I think it will be appropriate for the board to consider that,” he added. 

A resident said Comcast’s cell phone service can help people rectify the connectivity issue, however, Gimbel said Comcast uses Verizon to relay cell service.

The committee voted in favor of allowing the JLUB to hire professionals to research all other lands in the township to find another viable site for the tower that would fit the Pinelands and FCC regulations and licenses, with tax money.