Most people can agree that mobile service on the East End is lacking, a problem that was exacerbated when city folk flocked east and more East Enders started working from home during the pandemic. But while there is general agreement that better cellular service is needed, no one wants cell towers to be placed in their backyard.
Proposals for various towers are in the works to meet service demand, but these projects have been slowed by local opposition, and the East End is facing another high season with spotty cell service that is inconvenient at best, and dangerous at worst.
Last fall, the Town of East Hampton published comments it received from hundreds of residents in a poll about cell service. The majority were adamant that service needs to improve.
“I rely on my cellphone for ALL communication and if I need a 911 call, I’m afraid I’ll not be able to get a signal,” one respondent said. “I cannot even send a text message most of the time and in the summer it’s impossible. A disgrace and absolutely ridiculous.”
Another commented, “I am a physician and see our current lack of wireless service in Springs and NW Woods as a public safety issue that must be fixed immediately.”
But several initiatives by the town to improve cell service have been met with fierce opposition, and in some cases litigation.
The project that appears closest to getting done is a proposed tower at Camp Blue Bay, a Springs property owned by the Girl Scouts of Nassau County. In December 2021, the East Hampton town board approved an agreement to erect an emergency communications tower at the site, and Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc was authorized to enter into a contract with wireless infrastructure company American Tower to install the town’s emergency communications equipment on the new tower, which will be built near the intersection of Flaggy Hold Road and Three Mile Harbor Road.
The East Hampton Planning Department expects to receive the site plan application soon, according to Senior Planner Eric Schantz. Then, several additional steps will be required before the tower can be built.
“(The application) would be reviewed by our department and our consultants at CityScape,” Schantz said, referring to the town’s wireless communication consulting firm. “It would require a public hearing before the town planning board.”
An application to construct a new tower on Springs Fire Department property on Fort Pond Boulevard is also in the pipeline. The fire department, in partnership with East Patchogue-based Elite Towers, has proposed a 180-foot monopole that would replace a 150-foot stealth monopole currently on its property that a court order declared was illegally built.
“The Springs Fire Department application is incomplete and we are waiting for them to submit a draft environmental impact statement, which would analyze all of the potential adverse impacts of the project,” Schantz said.
A third proposal for a cell tower, to be built by AT&T at St. Peter’s Chapel on Old Stone Highway in Springs, has been tied up in litigation. Homeowners near the property recently filed a lawsuit claiming the town board overstepped its authority in agreeing to a settlement with AT&T, which stemmed from a previous lawsuit filed by the communications giant after its application to build a tower was denied by the town planning board.
After much heated debate, Southampton Town’s planning board voted in February 2022 to accept a pre-submission application from Verizon Wireless for a 153-foot monopole on a Sag Harbor Village property off the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike that is directly adjacent to the Long Pond Greenbelt, a nature preserve. Plans call for the tower to be disguised as a tree.
Currently, the town is awaiting a site plan/special exception application from Verizon, according to Assistant Town Planning Director Clare P. Shea.
“Once we receive it, it would usually take four to six months to process if it meets the standards for approval,” Shea said.
The Town of Riverhead granted a special permit and site plan approval to Crown Castle Towers, a Houston-based company, to erect a new 120-foot monopole on a one-acre vacant lot on Fresh Pond Road in Calverton that will take the place of two existing Crown Castle towers on different sites, which the company would dismantle. However, the plan is on hold indefinitely due to pending litigation.
Crown Castle’s leases on the two existing properties were expiring, and the company said it couldn’t come to terms with the property owners on renewals. The Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals granted the company variances to erect the new tower but conditioned its approvals on Crown Castle providing covenants preventing competitive structures from being constructed on the two existing properties. As covenants restricting the use of real property must be executed by the property’s owners, Crown Castle said the conditions placed on approval were impossible, and it sued the town for “effective denial” and “unreasonable delays.”
The Town of Southold is exploring the possibility of contracting to have receiving cells installed on utility poles to boost connectivity on the North Fork.
The town plans to issue a Request for Proposals to have a private company come in and evaluate the effectiveness of the cells and to present a plan for improving coverage, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said.
“We have been talking to carriers and private companies,” he said. “One of the issues we are realizing is that we need to overcome the legal challenges that you see in other communities by developing a plan that addresses concerns prior to any presentation, not after. If we can’t show the companies that we support the projects, as a community then, they won’t be interested in trying to come into town and be met with the cost of litigation and the delays it would cause.”