The lawn behind Southold Town Hall, where the town would like to put a cell phone tower
The lawn behind Southold Town Hall, where the town would like to put a cell phone tower

Southold Town would like to put a cell phone tower on a broad expanse of lawn behind town hall, but they’ve got a bit of a problem.

Not only is the land in a nationally recognized historic district, but it’s also about a quarter mile from the Southold Schools on Oaklawn Avenue, and parents of students are concerned that RF radiation from the tower could cause their children to get cancer.

The town board is currently considering amending the town code to allow cell towers on vacant, commercially zoned land in historic districts, but critics believe this is just a form of spot zoning, since few such properties exist in Southold. If the board passes the zone change, the project would then go to the planning board for review.

Southold Town Historic Preservation Commission members told the town board at Tuesday morning’s work session that they unanimously oppose the cell phone tower. Preservation Commission Chairman Jim Grathwohl said his commission’s opposition is based on the precedent the cell tower would set in allowing cell towers in historic districts, not on the health risks, even though, he said, members of the commission may share parents’ concerns.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the town wants to encourage cell phone companies to put towers in Southold on town-owned property, because the town intends to include clauses in contracts that require cell phone companies to put in emergency backup power supplies to last several weeks in the event of a natural disaster. Most cell towers, he said, have backup power that only lasts a couple days.

He added that the Federal Communications Commission will likely require the construction of a cell tower somewhere in Southold, and the town would like to reap revenue from leasing the land and have more say in the tower’s construction than they would if it were placed on private land.

Southold resident and Historic Preservation Commission member Robert Harper, a former teacher, brought several studies to the town board’s Tuesday afternoon meeting which, he said, show the chance of developing cancer doubles or quadruples for people who live near cell towers. He added that he recently drove all over town looking for cell service dead spots where people told him there were dead spots, but didn’t find any.

“Maybe the solution to this is as simple as switching to Verizon,” he said, adding that he thinks the town board shouldn’t undo the work done in the past to preserve Southold’s history.

“We’ve had leaders who had the foresight to protect the assets that make Southold unique,” he said. “Are you going to be the first ones to push over the domino?”

Katherine Harper of Mattituck agreed.

“By voting against this proposed law, you honor the essence of who we Southlders are today: Caring stewards of the rich architectural treasures that we have inherited,” she said, then asked the board to imagine a cell tower on the battlefield at Gettysburg or above Mount Rushmore.

“If you find these things ridiculous, I challenge you to question why a cell tower behind Southold Town Hall is not absurd,” she said. “We need to avert needless suffering for our children… They’re vulnerable to RF radiation. We were once naive enough to believe that asbestos and cigarettes were harmless, too.”

Mr. Russell said that was certainly not naive to cancer threats. He lost his father to cancer and watched his mother suffer breast cancer treatment, he said, adding that he has a niece and nephew who attend the Southold school.

“We’ve looked at all the available science, as we’ve been dealing with cell towers for years,” he said. “The American Cancer Society has taken the official position there’s no link between cell towers and cancer. We certainly don’t go into these issues with blinders on.”

Peconic resident Robert Dunn asked how many students in the Southold Schools carry cell phones that emit radiation with them every day.

“The irony is, the highest concentration of cell phones in the town on any given day is in the school,” said Mr. Russell.

Town Board member Jim Dinizio, who runs his own telecommunications business, said cell towers and phones today emit far less radiation than they did a decade or two ago.

“All of that’s been mitigated down,” he said. “You can’t compare a 1993 phone to a phone today.”

The board closed the public hearing and plans to weigh the comments over the next two weeks before making a decision.

“I think what you said about historic preservation is all well received by this board,” he told members of the Historic Preservation Commission. “We don’t want to rush to judgement. We want to carefully consider everything you’ve raised.”

• Also at Tuesday’s board meeting, Southold agreed to take title to the 16 acre Whitcom Marsh Preserve on Mulford Court in Orient, which had belonged to The Nature Conservancy. Deed covenants on the wetland property say it must remain a nature preserve for charitable and educational purposes and kept entirely in its natural state.

• The Bay Avenue bridge in East Marion, which has been slowly sinking into Lake Marion, is getting a boost from the town. The board agreed Tuesday to pay Dunn Engineering up to $50,000 for initial designs to replace the bridge, which is currently the primary access route to home for people who live on the Peconic Bay side of Lake Marion.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

One thought on “Cell Tower Plan Irks Southold Parents, Preservationists

  1. People don’t even understand how cell phones work. Want to reduce the exposure you and your kids get from the phones? Put in a cell tower. The more bars you have on the phone the lower power it emits! This is just the usual “NIMBY” argument cloaked in concern about RF Safety. Everyone is going to want their phones to work the next time a hurricane comes around. Any site nowadays can be made esthetically acceptable while providing critical main and/or backup communications in a real time of need.

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