2012-03-28 / Front Page

Undersized fall zone dooms cell tower plan

Staff Writer

Safety regulations established by a township ordinance recently nudged members of the Marlboro Zoning Board of Adjustment to deny an application that proposed the construction of a cellular communications tower in the Morganville section of Marlboro.

The applicant, T-Mobile Northeast LLC, proposed to build a 150-foot-tall monopole at 112 Amboy Road, which is in an Industrial Office Research (IOR) zone. Cell towers are not permitted in the IOR zone. T-Mobile sought a use variance and bulk variances due to the insufficient size of the lot and an inadequate fall zone, according to the application.

Representatives of T-Mobile testified that a wireless communications tower on Amboy Road was necessary to fill a gap in coverage in the area.

Since the summer of 2010, T-Mobile’s professional witnesses have presented testimony before the zoning board. The process came to a conclusion at the board’s March 20 meeting.

A motion to approve the application was offered by board member Ibrahim El-Naboulsi. The motion did not receive a second and no vote was taken.

Board member Adrianne Spota then made a motion to deny the application and her motion was seconded by Frank Yozzo. Six board members voted yes on the motion to deny the cell tower. El-Naboulsi voted no on the motion to deny the cell tower.

Vice Chairman Matthew Weilheimer and board member Jennifer Bajar were absent from the meeting.

The board’s 6-1 vote meant the motion carried and the application was denied.

Most of the board members said the insufficient size of the fall zone derailed the application.

Afall zone is the undeveloped space surrounding a tower and that space would be where the tower would fall if it collapsed.

Marlboro requires the fall zone to be 1.5 times larger than the height of the structure. The proposed fall zone for the T-Mobile tower fell far below that limit, at one point measuring 9 feet, according to the board.

“We have an ordinance that we have to abide by. It’s here for a reason,” board Chairman Michael Shapiro said. “(The fall zone proposed by the applicant) is just way too close for us.”

There is a location on the proposed site that would better satisfy the fall zone constraints, but that location would interfere with the property owner’s operations, according to attorney Reginald Jenkins, who represents T-Mobile.

The cell tower as proposed would have been in close proximity to an undeveloped area that could one day be the location of homes.

A significant amount of the testimony presented by the applicant was an attempt to prove T-Mobile’s assertion that cell towers do not need a fall zone of the size required by Marlboro’s ordinance.

Rigorous engineering standards exist to ensure that most cell towers do not fall, said engineer Mike Bohlinger, who testified on behalf of the applicant. He said engineers must be present during the construction of the tower and are required to continue to perform inspections after the structure is built.

“Quite often I question why (fall zones are in municipal ordinances), given the nature of this structure,” Bohlinger said, calling the size of the required fall zone “overkill.”

Most municipalities do not require such fall zones for church steeples and smokestacks, even though those structures are not as reliable as cell towers, he said.

The cell tower that was proposed would have been designed to withstand wind speeds of up to 150 mph, Bohlinger said. He added that the design of the monopole would have also taken into account the occasional burst of a strong gust of wind.

“The tower will most likely survive, but there is a chance for it to fail, mostly because of a roof, a billboard or something else hitting it,” Bohlinger said. “But the tower is strong enough to take strong winds.”

In the rare case that a cell tower does fail, Bohlinger said, the monopole is manufactured to collapse in several sections, rather than to drop lengthwise, like a tree. When the highest section of a tower collapses, it does not usually cause the entire structure to come down, he said. The board’s planner, Richard Cramer, noted several instances where a fire caused the demise of a cell tower.

Although that scenario is “not uncommon,” when a cell tower fails due to a fire, it generally collapses in a controlled manner, Bohlinger said.

“Steel with fire is like spaghetti, before and after you cook it,” he said. “…The steel basically softens and the structure falls on itself.”

Despite the professional engineering behind wireless communications towers, the zoning board did not have the power to ignore the municipal ordinance regarding fall zones, Spota said.

“That is a discussion for the (Marlboro) governing body,” she said. “We are being asked to disregard the fall zone … and no real special circumstances were given to support negating (the fall zone) on this property.”

In the past, judges have ruled that although a 150 percent fall zone might be excessive, it is reasonable for a municipality to demand a fall zone equal to the height of the structure, the board’s attorney, Ronald Cucchiaro, said.

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