After residents had finished questioning T-Mobile's appraiser Mark Tinder concerning property values of homes near cell towers, the resounding request from the about 40 people in attendance at Tuesday's zoning board meeting was clear—do not approve the tower.
"This tower would forever alter the character of the neighborhood, and is in great contrast to the amenities of the neighborhood," said Overlook Drive resident Janelle Bryant. "The view from the neighboring properties, the public footpaths surrounding the site, the roadways, the neighboring places of worship and the neighboring preschool and kindergarten would be altered in a way that is incompatible with the existing landscape."
The hearing began with continued questioning of Tinder, who testified at the previous zoning board meeting that the proposed 130-foot T-Mobile cell tower at the Green Knoll Volunteer Fire Company would not lower property values.
Resident Joseph Kirk questioned Tinder's testimony, focusing on comments he had made at hearings in other townships concerning properties near cell towers. Kirk emphasized throughout his questioning that Tinder had failed to consider properties that were similar to those in Bridgewater.
"Would you agree that there are many factors that can drive the desireability of a property?" he asked. "And part of that is view. There has been opposition to the cell tower by local residents."
Tinder said that could differ in any circumstance.
"There could be potential purchasers who would no longer be because of the tower," he said. "People who are predisposed to that should be shown clearly in the marketplace, and the marketplace shows clearly the values."
Regarding a question as to what the marketplace really means, Tinder said he uses his professional knowledge to determine what is happening in the housing markets.
"It's my professional job as a certified real estate appraiser to research the market and report on what it tells me," he said. "My research in real world scenarios with homes that are located near towers is that they compete successfully in the marketplace with other homes in similar markets."
But, Kirk said, it is also clear that Bridgewater's master plan says no cell tower should be placed within 500 feet of a residence. According to Kirk, there are about 15 homes within that space near Green Knoll Volunteer Fire Company.
Resident Andrew Leven said he understands that part of doing an appraisal is looking at all the characteristics that define a neighborhood.
"I think we established that a neighborhood is a factor of value," he said. "People also buy a neighborhood, and that is a factor of value."
And according to Leven, the closest home to the cell tower would be 150 feet, not 500.
Once questioning of the final witness was complete, the board moved into the open portion of the meeting, allowing residents to speak for or against the cell tower proposal.
Leven spoke of the SICA test, which is required to prove an inherently beneficial use when a use variance is requested in front of any zoning board. Based on previous testimony from the experts, he said, it is clear that the application does not pass the test.
"The SICA test says impacts on a neighborhood matter," he said. "But T-Mobile has not met the burden under the SICA test."
In discussing the test, Leven offered previous testimony, already on the record, that T-Mobile has not provided a good faith effort to find an alternative and less intrusive site for the tower, and has not proven that it would not be detrimental.
Leven discussed past testimony in which board expert Hank Menkes recommended alternatives for locations for the tower, as well as the possibility of using the DAS system, but both were shot down by the applicant's expert, albeit with the use of tools that were later admitted to be faulty.
"I know what common sense tells us about cell towers, and I suppose we need appraisers to tell how much property values will be impacted," Leven said. "But people in this neighborhood did not buy houses within the site of a tower. They will all be impacted and they will lose."
In addition, Leven said, the application itself is unprecedented because there are no other locations in Bridgewater where a cell tower has been built in a residential area.
"We can deny this application under the SICA test for a point blank refusal to give information that would help us find a new location for the tower," he said. "We can deny it because it would undermine a zoning scheme and change the type of neighborhood."
"Under SICA, the applicant has failed factors one and three," he added. "The applicant is done."
And under the fourth factor, Leven said, the board needs to question whether there is a house that will benefit from being 150 feet from a 130-foot cell tower.
"I know there are situtions where you have to approve a bad project because you really have no choice, the facts and laws don't allow you [to reject it]," he said. "But if you have a principle basis in fact and law, then you can fairly exercise discretion to help residents who are relying on you to do so."
Resident David Robertson said he is most concerned by the fact that this would not be the only tower needing to be built.
"The attorney has said T-Mobile would have to augment [the first tower] with one other tower," he said. "So if you allow this application, you will automatically be allowing another tower."
As for property values, resident Charles Rohn said he found an appraisal institute that spotlighted cell towers and educated its members on discussing how it could decrease property values.
"It was based on one reason," he said, "increased media attention on the effects of electromagnetic radiation on health. Homebuyers have a perception, and perception is everything."
"After attending these meetings, I have heard no justification or value to our community for T-Mobile putting a cell tower in our nighborhood," he added.
For the first time since the application was introduced in 2010, a member of the Green Knoll Volunteer Fire Company spoke before the board, as representative Rob Resuta spoke about the monetary benefits the tower could bring to the company.
The company, Resuta said, functions basically on all donations as its 53 members hold fundraisers and do what they can to bring in funds for maintenance and other needs of the company.
Property taxes collected by the district, Resuta said, go toward new fire trucks, insurance, maintenance and more, but other structures at the building and necessities for the department individually are funded by donations.
"We have to find other means to finance the company in any way, shape or form," he said. "What [this cell tower] means as a fire company member is less time fundraising and more time with family. And we can continue to keep our neighbors and friends safe."
"The board needs to consider these things," he added.
Still, the resounding response from residents was the hope that the board would not approve the application.
Bryant said much of it has to do with the master plan as well, which says low density homes contribute to Bridgewater's character, and which, as recently as last year, sited the Foothill Road area as part of that character.
"Some residential landscapes change over time, but our master plan does not permit this major change," she said. "We have to say no to the tower at Green Knoll. The character and identity of the area is worth protecting."
Because the board was unable to hear all residents, and did not have a chance to deliberate itself before a vote, the hearing has been continued until May 22, for an expected vote.