Share this article

print logo

Proliferation of cellular towers stirs controversy in area communities

Trapped in a dead zone with no wireless coverage to call mom, text friends or update your Facebook status practically qualifies as a crisis these days.

But the rapid evolution of wireless service isn’t necessarily sitting well with everyone, either.

Consider what’s happening in Amherst, where some residents are more than a bit annoyed by the prospects of staring out at a 120-foot cellular tower proposed outside a little church on North French Road.

“It sets a bad precedent when you put a cell tower in what is essentially a backyard,” said Debra Kroening of North French. “It’s completely out of character for a neighborhood known for wildlife, greenery and single-family homes.”

Amherst, which has 22 cellular sites, is just the latest in a long line of communities to wrestle with the proliferation of cell towers.

As the technology has exploded, this same discussion has played out over the years in places like Alden, Cheektowaga, Evans, Lancaster, Orchard Park and Grand Island, which has nine cellular sites and is ready for another.

But more than another backyard battle, the North French dispute is a glimpse into just how ravenous we have become for everything wireless.

Verizon Wireless – which has more than half the area’s market share – said it needs the new tower to provide better, faster coverage and additional capacity for a growing number of users consuming more and more data with their smartphones and tablets.

The number of wireless subscribers in the United States rose 13 percent between 2010 and 2013 to more than 336 million, according to the latest survey from the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, a trade group in Washington D.C.

That’s more subscribers than the United States has people.

Meanwhile, wireless traffic jumped 120 percent last year, as the nation’s infatuation with tablets – estimated at 25 million – and smartphones – 175 million – soars.

Wireless providers countered. They spent a record-breaking $33 billion to upgrade their networks last year, but at this pace, data use is expected to increase eightfold within the next four years.

“Wireless has been around since the mid-’80s and, at first, I think people expected coverage was hit or miss,” said John O’Malley, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. “But now, because wireless is so pervasive, so mainstream, people expect to have coverage anywhere and everywhere.”

It’s a recent afternoon, and O’Malley is providing a peek inside Verizon’s mobile switching center – its nerve center – situated in a nondescript building at a location the company asked not be disclosed.

Large television screens hang on the wall so the technicians can monitor what’s happening at any of Verizon’s 200 cellular sites around Western New York.

Your call goes to the nearest cellular tower, then is sent by fiber-optic cable here – to the switching center – where a bank of servers not only processes your call, but more than 3 million other voice and data calls each day.

Your call is sent back out by fiber-optic cable bound for its eventual destination: a land line or the cellular tower closest to the mobile user you’re trying to reach.

And all of that happens within a fraction of a second.

“Smartphone growth continues to go through the roof and your tablet devices are now outselling laptops and PCs,” O’Malley said. “The big thing for us the last several years is adding capacity where we already have service to stay ahead of consumer demand.”

That’s what led Verizon to the Phoenix United Church of Christ at 1280 North French Road, near Campbell Boulevard, where the company wants to place a cell tower to improve its network in northwest Amherst.

“It’s not a big church,” Kroening said. “The lot that church is on is about the same size of any other lot in this area, so we almost look at it as just another home on the street.”

Kroening and neighbor Laura Yates circulated a petition in opposition.

Yates acknowledges she uses a cellphone just like everyone else. But it doesn’t mean she wants to look out her window at a cell tower.

“The biggest issue is real estate values,” said Yates, who lives kitty-corner to the church. “If I were to sell my home, no one would want to buy it, because this cell tower is a little over 200 feet away from my house.”

That the controversy strikes a growing number of communities is understandable, given that cellular sites numbered nearly 302,000 nationwide last year, according to the Wireless Association.

On Grand Island, the Island United Presbyterian Church on Huth Road has been suggested as a possible location for another Verizon cell tower on the island, but neighbors there don’t want to look at it.

Veterans Park on Bedell Road also has been suggested, but residents there don’t want it, either.

“They have to happen and somebody is not going to like it,” Grand Island Supervisor Mary Cooke said. “There’s no good answer.”

But it’s a question that has risen all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court will decide next term on a case out of suburban Atlanta that deals with whether local governments must provide detailed written explanations for denying new cellular towers.

“It’s an ongoing issue what we do with these cell towers, because you have this trade-off,” said Amherst Councilmember Steven Sanders. “People want to have cellphone reception, but they don’t want to put a cell tower in their backyard.”

Amherst already has 22 cellular sites, said Thomas Ketchum, the town’s building commissioner.

Some are freestanding towers, like the one at Billy Wilson Park on Hopkins Road. Others are antennas fixed to a building or structure, like the Big Blue Water Tower, along the Youngmann Expressway.

But Ketchum said the cell tower proposed for the church on North French Road is a bit unique, because its proximity to homes is closer than what Amherst would normally see.

Verizon will need a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals, because of the proposed height of the tower, while the Town Board can also weigh in on the tower’s distance from bordering properties.

Ketchum and Supervisor Barry Weinstein already have met with Verizon representatives to recommend other, less conspicuous locations.

“We will certainly work with the town and see if there are other options. That’s part of the process,” O’Malley said. “The thing is, when we propose a location we’ve done a lot of research about what is the best site for us, as far as what’s going to meet our coverage needs.”

And from the looks of it, the need for more cellular isn’t going away anytime soon.

In fact, Blue Wireless is proposing five more cellular sites on town-owned property in Amherst.