Cell Antennas Proposed at Montauk Lighthouse

AT&T wants to install cell phone antennas on a building at the Montauk Lighthouse. The problem is that they are banned at historic sites. Jane Bimson

It was Montauk night at an East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on Tuesday as members considered an application for cellphone antennas on the six-story fire control tower at the Montauk Lighthouse and learned that a septic system expert has been discussing a possible treatment plant at the Montauk Shores Condominium with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. 

The lighthouse, one of the four oldest in the country, was commissioned by President George Washington. The area surrounding it is zoned for parks and conservation and dotted with historical structures. Joseph Gaviola, a member of the Montauk Historical Society’s lighthouse committee, which maintains the area without public funding, represented it at the meeting, along with Dick White.

The application before the board was from AT&T, which wants to mount nine flat, or panel, antennas on three of the four sides of the control tower, along with a global positioning system device on its roof. However, antennas are prohibited in parks and conservation districts.

Mr. Gaviola explained the need for the antennas, saying cellphone signals are weak or nonexistent for the 100,000 people who visit the lighthouse grounds each year, as well as for mariners between Montauk Point and Block Island. AT&T would pay the society for using the tower, which, Mr. Gaviola said, “is good money for us.” However, Mr. Gaviola assured the board that “it is not our intent to dot the fire tower with antennas.” 

John Huber, an attorney for AT&T, paraded a string of experts before the board. They said the paint on the flat antennas would match the exterior of the building and that the antennas would have no environmental impact. 

Still, Eric Schantz, a senior town planner, pointed out that the code not only prohibits antennas in park and conservation districts but also includes open spaces, historically and culturally significant resources, historical sites, and areas of statewide significance as places where their installation should be avoided.  

John Whelan, the board’s chairman, asked if another cellphone company would be able to rely on AT&T’s equipment if it, too, wanted an antenna on the tower. The answer was no, Mr. Huber said, because each company has its own frequency. If Verizon came along, for example, it would have to install its own equipment. The only exception is 911, for which all antennas pick up calls. 

Theresa Berger, a member of the Z.B.A. who is a Montauk resident, recused herself, leaving four members to decide the application’s fate. Mr. Huber told members that if they approved the application, AT&T would return to the town planning board, where the site plan process had already begun. Mr. Schantz said the planning board had indicated support for the proposal.

The possibility that a sewage treatment plant would be built at Montauk Shores Condominium sometime soon was reported in connection with an application for a permit and variances from wetland setbacks for a new trailer there.

Lisa D’Andrea, a senior town planner, told the board that “the Montauk Shores Condominium sanitary system . . . was designed to handle a flow rate up to 26,534 gallons per day.” In reality, she said, according to Planning Department calculations, the daily flow rate in summer for the 198 units there is over 43,000. As a result, the Building Department has stopped issuing building permits there. 

It was reported at the hearing, however, that James Graham, the condominiums’ president, had said during its biannual meeting on Labor Day weekend that he and Bryan Grogan, a specialist in septic systems, were nearing a final design for a treatment plant. 

Thomas Wandzilak, whose family has owned a trailer (unit 826) on East End Drive for about 60 years, was at the hearing as he is applying for a permit and variances from wetland setbacks at the condominiums to replace an aging 500-square-foot trailer with a 925-square-foot trailer, along with a shed and deck. He said that, if approved, he understood he would not be able to immediately obtain a building permit.