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Faced with a variance request for the eighth communications tower in Orchard Park, the Town Zoning Board Tuesday night declared itself the "lead agency" to conduct an impact study under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

Sprint Spectrum, a new cellular phone corporation that wants to build 150 communications towers to cover the state from Buffalo to Seneca Falls with low-power digital mobile phone service, is seeking a variance for a 110-foot tower on Armor-Duells Road near Bussendorfer Road.

"These cells use more modern technology than the cellular phone companies you may be familiar with," said David Olek, a consulting engineer for the project. "We have three kinds of towers: urban, usually sited on buildings that cover a 1 1/2 -mile radius in heavily populated centers like Buffalo, Rochester or Niagara falls; suburban sites that cover a 3 1/2 -mile radius on towers that can be 150 feet tall; and rural sites that use 250-foot towers. Those are usually sited along highways."

Sprint Spectrum will present plans for three more towers in West Seneca tonight. It is attempting in one year to create a grid as extensive as those its competition -- Cellular One and Frontier Cellular -- built up over the last decade, Olek said.

Because of towers planned for Boston, Blasdell and West Seneca, only two towers will be needed in Orchard Park, Olek said. One will be on the 160-foot water tower in the center of the village. The other for which the company is seeking a variance, is in an area that contains both upscale estates and more modest residential housing. About 15 residents were at the hearing to speak against the variance because there already is a 140-foot tower nearby belonging to Frontier Cellular, and another, to the north, is being built by Tri-State Christian Broadcasting. There also is a lofty "ham radio" tower on Bussendorfer Road.

"Our neighborhood is going to look like a picket fence," said Alfred Reddick of 5259 Bussendorfer. Neither he nor his neighbors were mollified by Sprint Spectrum's plan to locate the tower in a stand of mature, 60-foot evergreens, then disguise it with vinyl bark, PVC limbs and leaves so it would look like a towering pine tree.

"This has been used at Disney World," Olek said, "and we are prepared to spend a lot money so that the impact is lessened." The tower, a single pole 40 inches in circumference at its base and 12 inches at its top, has arms for various antennas. It will cost $50,000 to build and another $50,000 to be disguised as a "tree," Olek said.

Paul Steinwachs of 5600 Armor-Duells Road said he was not against progress, but he did not like the idea of extra towers when another communications tower is just 1,000 feet away from the proposed Sprint project. He urged the town to pressure Frontier Cellular to share its existing tower.

Sprint Spectrum attorney Ray Stapell told the board the company has repeatedly tried to make arrangements with Frontier to share its tower, which would have to be rebuilt to take the additional antennas. He said Sprint was willing to share that cost.

"We are going to share the water tower in the village with Cellular One," Stapell said. "Our position is to share towers with anyone provided they do not interfere with our operation and pay a pro-rata share of construction and maintenance costs," he added. "To date, Frontier has not responded to our requests."

Zoning Board Chairman Arthur K. Coon said he would put the tower issue on a future agenda after the environmental impact study is completed.

"This may delay the matter awhile, since the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the state Health Department, Erie County and the town will all have to comment on the tower's potential environmental impact."

But, Zoning Board member Leon Zwolinski added that courts have declared that cellular telephone companies are public utilities and as such are to "get a little more leeway than other commercial enterprises."

In another matter, the board permitted a slightly oversized sign on a slightly larger base than the codes allow to be erected on what they called "automobile row" on Southwestern Boulevard, but refused to grant the petitioner's request for a variance on sign height.

Louis J. Berti said his company, Best Dodge, was buying the former Ray Laks Acura dealership at 3551 Southwestern Blvd. Laks is relocating to West Seneca, next to its Honda dealership. Berti wanted to erect the "smallest sign Chrysler Corp. offers." It is just over 50 square feet -- 45 square feet is the maximum in that location with the site's setback. The sign's base is 24 inches across instead of the 8-inch diameter pedestal allowed in the zoning code. It also would be 20 feet high, when the zoning code allows signs to top out at 16 feet.

Berti said that his sign would be eight feet tall "just eight feet off the ground" and would look "squatty," but the zoners unanimously agreed that he could go no higher than the other new car dealerships' signs on Southwestern.

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