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Can't Unring the Bell at St. Peter's Chapel

Thu, 03/16/2023 - 09:36
AT&T says it looked into 21 other locations, but that a spot right next to St. Peter’s Chapel proved to be the best place for a 70-foot monopole. Part of the company’s submission to the East Hampton Town Planning Board shows its placement in relation to the church.

At its March 1 meeting, the East Hampton Town Planning Board was left with two bad options for a cell tower at the tiny St. Peter’s Chapel in Springs, and a litigation-imposed mandate to choose one by April 24. Cingular Wireless, operating as AT&T, requires approval of a special permit from the board to go ahead with construction.

St. Peter’s, built in 1881, is located at 465 Old Stone Highway and is owned by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton Village. Its original tower contains a Civil War-era bell. In 2015, AT&T proposed a new 50-foot bell tower, which it called the “campanile facility,” to disguise a pole, that would be attached to the historic building.

That plan was rejected by the planning board in July 2020.

In its rejection the board dryly stated that “a 50-foot-tall Italianate bell tower three feet away from a 19th-century American rural chapel is incompatible aesthetically.”

AT&T filed suit in August 2020, and prevailed. The settlement agreement gave birth to a new application for a 70-foot standalone tower on the chapel property. According to the agreement, if the planning board does not approve it by May, AT&T would be allowed to build the previously rejected bell-tower model instead.

The submission from AT&T shows what the tower would look like on the chapel grounds in winter.

Eric Schantz, the assistant town planning director, damned the 70-foot tower with the faintest of praise. He advised the planning board to agree to it, if only because ultimately, it would be easier to tear down than the 50-foot campanile design, which gave a “false sense of architectural history.”

In June of 2022, the town adopted new code for personal wireless service facilities that listed “avoidance areas” and “opportunity sites.” At the meeting Mr. Schantz said St. Peter’s “meets none of the opportunity-site criteria” but does meet one of the avoidance areas criteria. In addition, the chapel had been designated for inclusion on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Mr. Schantz noted the “conspicuous nature of the facility” and said a “monopole will be significantly visible from Old Stone Highway and surrounding residential areas” before concluding “this location is inherently inappropriate for this design or any other.”

Nonetheless, AT&T is pushing forward with its plan.

Its lawyer Matt Fitzgerald said it was necessary because of “significant” gaps in coverage along Red Dirt Road, Barnes Hole Road, Old Stone Highway, and Neck Path that “can have serious consequences during times of emergency or disaster.”

Neil Arceo, a radio frequency engineer, identified a milewide radius from the tower where AT&T “coverage is almost nonexistent at this time.” He didn’t think the recently approved Camp Blue Bay tower, which is three miles from St. Peter’s Chapel, would help the area much.

In a 33-page, Feb. 23 letter to the town, Mr. Fitzgerald leaned heavily on pushing emergency response needs, even going so far as to bring up the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That said, the proposed tower will only provide service to AT&T customers in houses within three-quarters of a mile from the chapel. Callers who are outside, or driving, could get service within two miles of the chapel.

Mr. Fitzgerald said 21 alternative locations had been “exhaustively considered” and that “available alternatives fail to meet AT&T’s coverage objectives. This has to be the location.”

“That was the longest argument ever made for the least flexibility by this board in making a decision,” said Louis Cortese, a board member, after Mr. Fitzgerald’s 30-minute presentation. Both he and Randy Parsons, another board member, wondered why a 70-foot monopole was necessary, when AT&T originally requested only a 50-foot pole.

Mr. Fitzgerald said the trees were set back farther from the chapel, causing less interference. The monopole would be placed in a wooded area to the side of the chapel.

Mr. Parsons wondered if the reason AT&T wanted a 70-foot monopole was so it could rent space on it to other carriers.

Mr. Fitzgerald said that there was “not room for another carrier to go on there” and that it was “not their intention to rent out” the pole.

Mr. Parsons highlighted the fact that AT&T was arguing on one hand that trees would screen its tower, while on the other saying the taller tower was necessary because of the trees.

In his letter, Mr. Fitzgerald said the “modest brown painted monopole” would blend with the existing vegetation and would be “well concealed within a largely wooded area.” He also argued that the tower was consistent with the neighborhood and would have “minimal aesthetic impact.”

He said, “The site is at a location of a church,” while arguing the pole “will have no negative impact upon any churches” adding that “St. Peter’s Chapel church is fully supportive of the proposed facility.”

Meanwhile, one of the special permit standards in town code specifically states that the location should not be “unsuitably near to a church or other place of public assembly.”

Mr. Parsons also had issues with the landscaping. “You have this historic chapel, and then right next to it an industrial driveway leading to a cell tower and fenced-in storage area.”

“There is nobody that’s super-excited about this project,” said Ian Calder-Piedmonte, the temporary chairman of the board.

A public hearing has been scheduled by the planning board for April 12 at 7 p.m.

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