Hampton officials host heated public hearing on proposed wireless communications structure

Thursday, October 24, 2019 | 12:52 PM

A public hearing on the installation of a new utility pole with a small non-tower wireless communication structure lasted for almost three hours Oct. 23, with Hampton Township Council tabling the vote until the Nov. 6 special meeting.

Applicant Crown Castle, located in Canonsburg, wants to place a utility pole with small cells at the public right of way on 2995 Haberlein Road which is also the front of the property of Charles Cubarney and his wife.

Crown Castle installs communication infrastructure in various capacities. In this case, they are hired by Sprint to install a small cell structure or DAS, a distribution antenna system, to help keep up with data demands in that area specifically. Sprint identified this site as a gap in coverage, according to Shawn Gallager, of Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney PC,

Crown Castle is installing small cell nodes, not cell towers, throughout Pennsylvania. A small cell node consists of a radio and antenna that is attached to a new or existing pole in the public right of way. Cell towers are normally 150 feet or taller, according to Crown Castle. This small cell facility is low-powered and sits closer to the ground, serving high data-usage demands within approximately 1,000 feet of the tower, according to Crown Castle presentation.

As is their practice, Crown Castle engineers first try to co-locate an existing utility pole in that area to place the communication infrastructure, but will erect its own if none are compatible, according said Paul Gilbert, network real estate manager for Crown Castle.

Four poles are currently located within the target area but these interfered with the existing utility lines and caused a safety issue.

Their structure would be placed on their own utility pole with an overall height of 33 feet, approximately 10 feet lower than the surrounding ones, said Gilbert. They would install a streetlight on the pole, The nearby stop and street sign would also be placed upon this pole.

Crown Castle is currently certificated as a utility according to its representatives at an August township public hearing. Township Council person Richard Dunlap said a case is currently being decided by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania if Crown Castle should still be recognized as a public utility.

Regardless, Crown Castle has complied with all of Hampton Township’s zoning laws and ordinances so whether or not they are deemed a utility doesn’t matter. Because legally, the township would have to allow them to install if they comply with township rules, according to Gallagher.

Hampton Township Planning Commission recommended approval at its October meeting and Gateway Engineers, who reviewed the application, also signed off on the pole with request for minor modifications, according to Hampton Land Use Administrator Amanda Gold-Lukas.

Gallagher said that this is not a 5G structure, though when questioned said, it could become one in the future if a wireless carrier requested it.

Many residents there were concerned 5G structures, with the speed of delivering wireless data, could have harmful health effects, including cancer. Gallagher said everyday appliances emit more radio frequency emissions than this would.

Also, many were concerned the pole is located close to Poff Elementary.

Gilbert said the Federal Communications Commission limits the maximum RF emissions exposure and he said this site would be considerably less than the limit.

Gilbert said this small cell system provides safety benefits as it adds to the reliability of emergency calls in an area.

Ken Boben, President Central Area, Crown Castle, said, “Crown Castle builds communications infrastructure that serves as the foundation for mobile connectivity in towns across the US. The safety of RF emissions has been extensively studied for more than 60 years. This research is subject to constant review by government agencies, and the FCC has established RF emission guidelines for all communications equipment. The scientific and health communities have all come to the same general conclusion — there are no established health hazards from exposure to RF emissions within the established FCC guidelines.”

The 2996 Haberlein Drive site would be maintained by Crown Castle, said Gallagher. However, when asked, he said if someone drove into the pole, it would most likely not be their responsibility.

Dr. Eileen Morrow, of Harvest Lane, is the daughter of the couple whose property is at the proposed small cell location. She said they have concerns of health for her parents and of children and staff at Poff. The couple have lived there for more than 50 years, said Morrow. She said this could lower the property value of her parents’ home.

“Is the advancement of technology more important than the health of our community?” Morrow said.

The “crux” of the matter, as Township Manager Christopher Lochner explained, is that unless the township can find somewhere in their current zoning laws and ordinances that shows Crown Castle does not comply there is not much they can do.

“They are proceeding under our zoning ordinance so it doesn’t matter if they are a public utility or not,” said Dunlap.

Dunlap requested that if anyone is able to find a way to show this, then they can use this to deny the application. Lochner said if they take this to court and Crown Castle wins its case, then it could allow companies like Crown Castle to have even more freedom to place these systems.

Daniel Cohen, a lawyer who specializes in representing municipalities and local governments, noted that FCC regulations overrides Hampton Township’s regulations and ordinances.

A petition of more than 1,000 signatures from residents opposing the application was presented to the council.

Lochner said a lobbying effort through the Pennsylvania Municipal League, of which Hampton Township is a member, is their best level of action to get federal and state laws changed.

“We don’t believe they are a public utility,” he said.

Gilbert said of moving the location of the utility pole, that a slight shift could affect the coverage area.

Chris Farmakis. of Middle Road, was in support of the placement and said Crown Castle followed ordinance requirements. He said almost everyone has a cell phone and other technology, and that we want them to work appropriately when needed.

“The people that want this service are in this room,” he said. “We have a capacity issue and we will continue to have a capacity issue.”

He said he’d welcome the pole in his front yard if it followed the zoning ordinance.

The township tasked their solicitors to study the township ordinance in regard to the application.

Lochner said even if this one passes, they will be reworking the zoning ordinance in regard to this subject and hopefully make the next one more strict. However, regulations and laws with the FCC are ever-changing, calling it “extremely complicated.”

Lochner said the township is not financially benefiting from it, except a possible $25 per year permit fee. Also, he said this industry isn’t going away. As a township, they just have to figure out “how to deal with it.”

Mark Cadarette, of Summit Drive, suggested the township does all it can to “hold these guys off” before making a decision.

“We want safe technology. We’re not anti-technology,” he said.