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Zoning Board Okays Fake Tree Design for Belle Mead Cell Tower

By Barbara A. Preston | April 19, 2019

As a result of an appeal won by Verizon Wireless in Somerset County Superior Court, a 123-foot cell tower may be erected at the Staats Farm property, 694 River Road, contingent upon state and regional approvals.

Example of a faux evergreen cell tower, proposed to be installed near the Millstone Valley Scenic Byway in Belle Mead.

The Montgomery Zoning Board of Adjustment heard Verizon's updated project plans on March 26 and decided in favor of a faux evergreen tree atop the landscape instead of a monopole design. Verizon will have co-location space for other wireless carriers to install their antennae and equipment on galvanized steel “tree branches” along the Millstone Valley Scenic Byway.

Tony Lopez-Lopez of Belle Mead, an alternate member of the zoning board, was the only member to vote in favor of the monopole design instead of a fake tree design. The board discussed the visual and aesthetic impacts of each along the Millstone Valley Scenic Byway, and arrived at a conclusion that any monopole would not be continuing as a single line or rod up into the sky; the additions of antennae and transmitter units would be adding chunks of steel and wiring high atop the tree-lined River Road, in plain sight to Staats Farm Road and adjacent Belle Mead neighborhoods.

Verizon Wireless attorney Richard Stanzione said there is a tower installed at Peterson’s Nursery in Lawrenceville, east of Route 206 and north of Province Line Road, which has a similar state-of-the-art tower. Stanzione last appeared before the zoning board in December 2016, when the board voted four to three against the allowing Verizon to build the cell tower.

At the March meeting, the zoning board questioned Stanzione on whether the Staats Farm facility would be as modern and reputable as this design.

Stanzione said what is represented in the pictures as part of the application would be the closest representation of what is ultimately built, should approvals be granted by the State Historic Preservation Office located within the Department of Environmental Protection (NJ SHPO), the FCC, and the D&R Canal Commission.

At its April 17 meeting in Stockton, the D&R Canal Commission did not have the Staats Farm Verizon project on its agenda. Mitigation plans for the project could be attached to any or all of these agencies’ approvals of the Verizon application.

Stanzione says he hopes there would not be many changes for the project as it goes through these reviews, “because we believe we are addressing comments (the canal commission) had on the project in prior reviews.” He advised the Montgomery zoning board that if substantial modifications come up in other agency reviews, Verizon will have to appear again before Montgomery zoning board for approval.

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Staats Farm Road resident Leonard Dunbar said the fake tree design “would more evenly hide” additional equipment on the cell tower when co-locator space is leased out by Verizon.

Zoning Board Chairman Steve DeRochi concurred and said the monopole was presented as an option for Montgomery “in its very best light to start” because it would eventually have more mechanical and wiring components, “and it only would go downhill from there.”

Candy Willis, chairman of the Montgomery Township Landmarks Preservation Commission, spoke at several of the 2016 zoning board hearings when Verizon applied to build a 150-foot fake farm silo. On March 26 she told the zoning board: “Of course we do not want any pole there but if there has to be anything I think it should be the least visually intrusive and that would be the monopole. If you drive around countrysides, monopoles are actually starting to look like older structures. Fake trees are too tall and they are too high off the ground, they just look too fake,” she said. Her comment was supported by comments to The News from Linda Barth of the D&R Canal Watch nonprofit and advocacy group.

Willis also asked why there was a submission waiver granted for only the Rhinear Staats House on the property when other historic elements, the Donald Staats House and the Cornell Wyckoff Cemetery, are also located at the Staats Farm property. Stanzione says the project shows that areas Verizon is disturbing are minimal sections on the 84-acre total property.

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Elizabeth Palius of River Road, founder of the Millstone Valley Preservation Coalition and the River Road Association, told the zoning board she and many other residents are concerned with stormwater runoff onto River Road. Palius said the tower should be concealed by more tree plantings and other mitigation.

“We are very upset to be getting a cell tower in the historic district along the national scenic byway," Palius said. "Since we have to have it I think we need the most mitigation possible to conceal it. The existing trees in the area are all deciduous and if a massive fake evergreen goes up, it will stand out like a sore thumb in the winter. It is very inappropriate in preserved farmland to plant a fake tree. A straight tower, if it is not shiny, would disappear into the atmosphere if there’s enough mitigation around it. I am concerned about preserving the view-shed from River Road and one idea is putting up a wooden fence, not a chain link fence, and planting Norway Spruce, although it is not native it would hide the bottom of the structure. I also think we should merge the whole thing and add many deciduous trees and the area around this, as much as possible, should be unmowed and the whole area would be concealed,” she said.

After the March meeting ended, Palius stood outside the municipal building and told The News that years ago, there was a suggestion that inadvertently created a chance for this cell tower application and location. She says the concept was to section off a couple acres of the Staats Farm acres "then restore and sell the Staats house, with a conservation easement, to somebody who wants to live in a bucolic environment."

"They said 'oh, that is a good idea' and that is why this thing had a freakin' exception that allowed this cell tower to come in. Even the best intentions can go wrong. Bad, bad, bad, bad,” Palius said.

In December 2016, former Montgomery mayor Mark Conforti explained what the planned tower height over 120 feet allows for: “That height maximizes the profit (for Verizon to rent levels of space for other wireless carriers on the towers). You’d need about 20 feet for each mobile company’s receptors. They maximize profits by having four, so that equals 80 feet. The 135-feet high in the historic area is causing a lot of consternation,” Conforti had explained.

Stanzione said this modern fake tree tower is much different than those along the Garden State Parkway. He also said that the finish of the paint on fake tree cell towers is purposefully dull so that light is not brightly reflected off them, creating further negative visual impact.

“We would go with the dullest finish possible for the galvanized steel structure. I have seen and represented cases for a lot of these poles throughout the state and they have always been ‘not reflective’ to sunlight, at least to my eyes, as the best way to describe it. They kind of blend into the skies which we have had in January and February which are gray. That’s generally what you’ll see driving around,” Stanzione told the zoning board.

Verizon’s team of consultants stated that noise emitted from the new cell tower would be the equivalent of an air conditioning vent or the internal fan of a computer, rating between 43 and 48 decibels at its operational maximum. Buffering and creating a berm for the cell tower site will be coordinated by Verizon as it receives direction from the township’s landscape architect, Richard Bartolone.

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