Real estate appraiser Robert Heffernan presented his report to the zoning board of adjustment Tuesday concerning the impact of cell towers on property values—and announced that he believes a tower at 130 feet in the air will affect the homes nearby.
"I believe the tower will have an adverse impact to surrounding properties," he said. "I believe that is something that needs to be considered in terms of granting the application."
Heffernan was hired by resident Joseph Kirk as an expert witness concerning the T-Mobile application for a 130-foot tower at the Green Knoll Volunteer Fire Co. Kirk had appealed to the zoning board to allow the residents to bring in an expert concerning property values, citing that this is the one thing board members had yet to hear about.
The focus of Heffernan's study was on several towers around New Jersey, although T-Mobile attorney Greg Meese noted that none of these are exactly like the one being proposed for Bridgewater.
Meese noted that none of the examples Heffernan gave were stealth structures, meaning they were not flagpole or tree monopoles—the proposed structure will be a flapole without the actual flag.
"With all the cellular towers in New Jersey, you couldn't find one more comparable to what was proposd than a dual lattice tower that is 450 feet?" he asked. "What concerns me is that out of thousands of cell towers in New Jersey, you include one, and then studies of other towers that are not comparable."
But Heffernan noted that that is because there are none similar in the area.
"I was not able to find other cell towers established in this area," he said. "A review of testimony helped us understand that there are other towers in Bridgewater, but they all appear to be in conjunction with electrical power lines."
Heffernan said any similar structures in Bridgewater did not qualify for the study because of the need to look at houses sold in certain time frames.
"In most cases, the stealth towers that I have been acquainted with were not near residential properties to make for a valid study," he said. "Just because it is in a residential area doesn't mean it qualifies for the study. There has to be a sale of a property that is approximate to the tower."
"It is not just a matter of being within a close distance of the tower, it's being able to view the tower," he added.
Heffernan said he was able to study properties around the county that are similar to those in the Green Knoll area of Bridgewater, but with lattice towers, water tanks and other similar towers nearby.
This was based, Heffernan said, on the section of Bridgewater near the firehouse, with homes selling for between $325,000 and $725,000. The average sale price, he said, is $417,989, with 10 percent of the existing supply being marketed in any one period.
The one structure most similar to that which is being proposed, Heffernan said, is a lattice structure in Franklin. Heffernan discussed the different aspects of two properties near the structure to discuss their property values, and compared the value of the home in view of the tower to the one that is not.
The first, on Valley Wood Drive in Franklin, is a single family residence that sold in 2010 for $700,000, or $174.91 per square foot. The house, Heffernan said, sits on 0.517 acres, and is 4,002 square feet, with four bedrooms, three full baths, one half bath, one basement, a three-car garage, two fireplaces, a paver block driveway and more.
The house, Heffernan said, has a winter view of the monopole, which stands about 120 feet high, from the rear yard.
From there, Heffernan said, he also looked at a comparable property on Renoir Way, which has no view of that same cell tower, but is in the Woodlands community in Franklin with the Valley Wood Drive home.
The Renoir Way home sold in 2010 for $685,000, or $182.08 per square foot.
Heffernan accounted for several price differentials, including the fact that the Renoir Way home sold first, it is in an inferior location, it has vinyl siding instead of brick like the Valley Wood Drive home and other conditional information about the house.
Based on those adjustments, to make the Renoir Way home comparable in structure to the Valley Wood Drive home, Heffernan said, the former would actually sell for $774,800.
"The difference in price is $74,800, which reflects a difference of 10.7 percent," he said. "I can only attribute that to the fact that the Valley Wood Drive home has a clear view of the cellular tower."
All of this, Heffernan said, including many other examples, are based on a negative externality, which causes the house closest to the structure to be lower in value than the one farther away.
In addition, Heffernan said, his study determined that the structure being proposed for the firehouse is unlike anything in the neighborhood.
"I understand it is a flagpole at 130 feet, which is not typical of flagpoles," he said. "It is a 130-foot structure in a neighborhood that only allows 30-foot structures. It will obviously be notable from a large range in the area."
Heffernan said that, in his experience, people do not choose to live near similar structures.
"Or if they do choose to live there, they do so only when there is a reasonable price difference that makes it acceptable to live there," he said. "Properties that are approximately close to the tower will suffer substantial degradation to their value based on the nature of the unusual feature in the residential neighborhood."
Heffernan, also a licensed real estate agent, said he would also feel obligated to mention to any potential buyer that there is a 130-foot cell tower proposed for the area.
In answer to a question from board member Donald Sweeney, Heffernan said he has never seen a case where a tower of some sort has not had some affect on nearby residential real estate, whether through lack of appreciation of value or sale price.
"These externalities clearly have negative impacts," Sweeney said.
"Location location location seems to be important in real estate," Heffernan said. "People look for the best location they can afford, and they have to balance that with size and style of the house. It starts with the neighborhood."
Board member Evans Humenick said the one other factor he is interested in is whether, in properties studied, the tower or the houses came first.
Heffernan said that, in most cases, the tower actually came first.
"I would think the tower would have an affect on the original buyer," Humenick said. "What is the relevance of the original sale?"
Heffernan said there is no real way to determine that.
"When you go back and find data, it is hard to establish what was the base of that home," he said. "The home may not be what it was when it was first built."
Humenick maintained that this was something to consider.
"People in the community deserve the best we can give them, and it is refreshing to find out that people did buy homes with towers already on the property," he said. "Our most important thing is to balance everything and protect the community."
Just before the meeting ended, Sweeney also questioned about a roaming agreement he had heard discussed after T-Mobile and AT&T discontinued its recent plans to merge the companies. He said he had heard that people with a lapse in service from one provider in an area could be picked up by another.
But Meese said he has been instructed to move forward with the application and that that possible agreement should have no bearing on it.
"I would say that is irrelevant," he said, citing the telecommunications act, which allows cellular communications companies to move forward with improving their coverage. "If the board took the postiion that roaming is there, they could never give you a place to build. T-Mobile wants to build a site there, they need a site there, and we believe we have the rights of the telecommunications act to build out regardless of roaming."
Although Heffernan had finished his own testimony by the end of the meeting, the hearing was continued for Meese to continue his questioning and bring his own expert in, in addition to comments from the public concerning property values.
The hearing will be continued to March 27, with another meeting already scheduled for April 3.