The Scotch Plains Zoning Board of Adjustment unanimously rejected T-Mobile's application to construct a 120-foot cell tower in the parking lot of Willow Grove Swim Club on Wednesday night, capping more than nine months of meetings that attracted dozens of local residents opposed to the tower.
Referring to what board member Timothy Livolsi described as "gross inconsistencies" in T-Mobile's documentation and testimony, board members largely argued that the telecommunications company had failed to demonstrate that a gap in cell coverage existed in the area around the proposed site of the tower, or that the tower, if it approved, would have filled that gap.
"They haven’t satisfied me that a significant enough gap exists to impose the burden of this tower – the visual burden, more than anything else, I guess – on this neighborhood," Chairman Kenneth Anderson said. "From that point of view, the other aspects of the negative criteria and so on, aren’t even necessary, in my point of view."
John Edwards, the attorney representing T-Mobile, countered that in the area around Willow Grove, T-Mobile subscribers may be able to make calls when outside, but that their in-building coverage is substantially weaker. "You have to be able to make calls from inside your homes, inside your offices, that is what the customers expect, that is what our competitors are giving to our customers," Edwards said.
Nevertheless, Anderson and other board members said they were not convinced, arguing that T-Mobile was relying on internally-generated rather than industry-wide standards to gauge its coverage, and that other documents and testimony suggested that coverage was better than company experts had purported it to be.
Anderson added that a cell tower adds "a whole other level of commercial" zoning to the Willow Grove Swim Club, a property surrounded by single-family homes, and one he characterized "as residential as any commercial property can be."
Board member Dan Sullivan agreed. "It really is nothing more than a larger house than having a big pool in its back yard," he said of the pool club. He added that although the base of the proposed tower would have remained within the borders defined by an adjacent wetlands area, "I’ve seen, in my 50-plus years in the town, that water doesn’t follow those lines on the map, especially the groundwater runoff."
Edwards, however, argued, "The fact that there’s going to be a tower in a residential area does not give this board a legal right to deny it. The case law is to the contrary. When nothing else is left, and we do just have a residential area, we found a commercial use: this swim club. And we’re tucking it into the side of the swim club. And yes, it’s going to be visible to certain people. It’s going to be visible to a lot of people. Legally, the answer should not be, ‘Too bad, you’re just denied,’ because we have a legal right to be here once we’ve demonstrated that there’s nowhere else to go."
Nevertheless, opinion against the tower ultimately proved overwhelming. Just before the stroke of midnight Wednesday, the board voted 8-0 to deny the application. About two-dozen residents in the gallery leapt to their feet, cheered, hugged and cried.
Officials for the swim club, contacted by telephone Friday afternoon, could not be reached by press time.