Thursday, January 8, 2009

Residents Protest Cell Tower Proposal

By Conor Greene

Residents and elected officials rallied this week in Manhattan to protest the city’s decision to allow Omnipoint Communications to place a cellular tower on top of a two-family home in Maspeth.

Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) residents and civic leaders gathered on Monday morning outside the offices of the Board of Standards and Appeals in Lower Manhattan. The protest came weeks after the city agency granted Omnipoint a variance allowing a 13-foot cellular tower on top of a two-story house at 53-20 72nd Place.

“With this approval, the BSA has now set a very dangerous precedent allowing a 13-foot tower on a two-family house,” said Avella, who has recently called for the city to either reform or abolish the BSA. “This is now a huge precedent, which is scary to be honest, that we can have these things in quiet, low-density neighborhood.”

On December 16, the BSA voted 4-0 in favor of granting the application, despite overwhelming opposition from residents, elected officials and local community board members since it was first proposed in November 2007. The 13-foot tower will be mounted on the roof of the house, extending nearly 43 feet above street level.

The proposal initially called for a 25 foot pole rising nearly 55 feet above the street. In addition, the pole’s diameter has been reduced from 36 inches to 32 inches, and the structure will no longer be designed to resemble a flag pole.

After several public hearings, the BSA determined that “the proposed pole and related equipment will be located, designed and operated so that there will be no detrimental effect on the privacy, quiet, light and air of the neighborhood,” the board determined in its resolution affirming the decision. “The board further finds that the subject use will not alter the essential character of the surrounding neighborhood nor will it impair the future use and development of the surrounding area.”

However, many residents worry the tower will negatively impact their property values and could pose longterm health risks. “We’ve never seen anything like it, and are concerned that it doesn’t belong on top of a two-family building… in a residential neighborhood,” Peggy Vitalo told NY1 news. Her neighbor, June Osman, said her family is considering moving after 69 years in the neighborhood if the tower is built.

Federal law prohibits the BSA from rejecting the cell tower application because of potential health risks, and the BSA resolution affirming its decision notes that antidotal evidence from residents suggesting that there already is adequate coverage in the area also can’t be taken into consideration.

One of the few options left for residents is to challenge the city’s decision in court, which amounts to an expensive long-shot. Still, Avella said he is committed to assisting residents and civic groups if they go that route. “There are some legal aspects we can review as it relates to the application,” he said.

Avella noted that while “it’s a done deal as far as the city is concerned, there are always avenues we can pursue, adding that “the power of public opinion may be the best strategy we have when it comes to [fighting] these cell towers.” He said that after a two-year battle, residents in his district were successful in convincing a local church take down 23 antennas it had placed on top of its elementary school.

“Certainly, we can’t rely on the city,” said Avella, who is challenging Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his seat this fall. “Unfortunately, it’s typical.” Since taking office in 2002, he has pushed to reform the agency and provide residents with a way to appeal BSA decisions to the City Council, or scrap the agency entirely.

Some residents have suggested that there is another course of action available in this case. The house at 53-20 72nd Place is owned by Joseph Wroblewski, whose family owns Frank’s Deli in the adjacent building. In exchange for allowing Omnipoint to place the antenna on the house, which is rented out, Wroblewski will receive an undisclosed monthly rental fee.

Angry about the impact the project might have on the neighborhood, some individuals posting on online blogs have called for a protest of his family’s business.

“Everyone, and I mean everyone should boycott this deli,” wrote an anonymous poster on the local blog Queens Crap. “Show this guy who built his business on the backs of people in this community that he no longer has a business. Let his business dry up, just like the real estate in this neighborhood will… Wroblewski can just hop in his expensive truck and hightail it out to his lavish Long Island community. He’s laughing at the people of Maspeth… all the way to the bank.”

Wrote another poster: “It’s not bad enough that we all deal with the crap that surrounds the operation of that deli (early morning deliveries, 2 a.m. garbage pick ups, cars double parked or parked in crosswalks/fire hydrants and the garbage that blows [on] our streets. Now they can go home to LI and we can stare at our new cancer emitting flag pole.”

On Tuesday, Wroblewski refused to discuss the project, or comment on the residents’ calls for a boycott of his family’s business. “It is what it is,” he said. When asked how much he is receiving from Omnipoint, he first said, “I have no idea,” before adding, “I don’t think it’s anybody’s business.”

For residents living near the tower, it is a simple case of a large corporation with deep pockets disrupting the area’s quality of life, and an absentee landlord benefiting as a result. “Quite obviously, he [Wroblewski] bought this house to make money and doesn’t care about the community,” said Manny Caruana, a member of the Juniper Park Civic Association, following last month’s BSA ruling. “Anybody who does certainly wouldn't do this."

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