Sen. Stec pops into Adirondack Park Agency meeting to address spotty cell tower coverage
By Gwendolyn Craig
During the World University Games last winter, Verizon Wireless placed mobile cell towers around the park to increase its service coverage. After the games, they were gone.
State Sen. Dan Stec said constituents called him and complained. The transient towers, he said, were “a very public admission by the state government that we have poor cell service.” The mobile units were permitted by the Adirondack Park Agency. Stec said Verizon covered the costs.
The state has gone out of its way to impress visitors with state-of-the-art Olympic facilities, Stec said, but residents living without cell service feel like a “second fiddle.”
“It’s glaring,” Stec told the APA board. The Republican lawmaker from Queensbury made an unexpected appearance at the end of the agency’s meeting on Thursday. Chairman John Ernst joked that the board was not going to hold him to the 3-minute time limit for public comments, but then asked the senator to wrap up 20 minutes into his speech.
Stec outlined the issues: nearly half the park’s 6 million acres are forest preserve, constitutionally protected lands where communications towers may not be built. An added challenge for companies are the APA’s regulations on cell towers. Stec said Verizon, AT&T and others don’t want to complain to the regulator, “but they do continue to struggle.”
The APA oversees public and private development in the 6-million-acre patchwork of public and private lands. A policy passed in 2002 applies to telecommunications structures over 40 feet and requires that towers must have “substantial invisibility.” The term has been a headache for some, including APA board members tasked with permitting them.
The policy states that the towers should avoid mountaintops and ridge lines, co-locate where possible on existing towers, use vegetation to conceal or when all else fails, “camouflage in a scale with the surroundings.” Cell towers disguised as pine trees, nicknamed “Frankenpines,” have challenged some people’s interpretation of “substantial invisibility.”
Stec said he was not advocating for ridding “substantial invisibility” from the APA’s regulations. He thought it was good to minimize visual impacts.
However, he said there is room for compromise: “I’m telling you the vast majority want cell service in the Adirondacks,” he said. “I think the vast majority are willing to catch a glimpse of a cell tower, and it won’t ruin their day.”
He worried about the public safety ramifications of the lack of cell towers, citing nearly three-fourths of 911 calls are made with cell phones in area counties. Stec spoke about the killing of a Saratoga County woman, who was allegedly shot by a homeowner after a car she was in turned around in a driveway in rural Washington County. There was poor cell service in the area, delaying calls for help. The senator didn’t want to see a similar tragedy in the Adirondacks.
“I just don’t want to see our added layer of review and regulation be the reason why we don’t have adequate cell service in the park,” he said.
Ernst said he appreciated Stec coming “and making valid points.”