2008-03-14 / Front Page

Cell Tower Controversy Splits West End Temple Community

By Nicholas Briano

The West End Temple has been serving the Neponsit community for more than 70 years, but a recent decision by the temple's Trustees to place a cell tower on its roof has left many congregants and neighbors with a feeling of betrayal and a belief that the congregation's leaders are putting money ahead of their children's health.

The Board of Directors of the West End Temple in Neponsit touched off a community firestorm by contracting to erect a cell phone tower on the temple's roof. The Board of Directors of the West End Temple in Neponsit touched off a community firestorm by contracting to erect a cell phone tower on the temple's roof. The controversy began last week when residents started hearing rumors that the financially unstable institution had signed an agreement with a cell phone provider to place a tower on the roof of the one-story building at 147-02 Newport Avenue.

Aside from its traditional role as a house of worship, West End Temple is also home to a school and day care center, and many parents who came to a meeting called last Sunday to discuss the contract and listen to an expert from the company that will erect the tower, indicated that they were concerned for their children's health, should the tower be placed directly over their heads.

Neighbors with similar health concerns have joined congregants in fighting the plan.

Congregants, however, are also angered by the fact that they were not asked their opinion prior to the contract signing, nor were they informed that a contract had been signed.

One Neponsit resident, Jim Capozzi, who lives a few houses from the temple site, is outraged at what he describes as "blood money" in exchange for putting cell towers on top of the temple.

"They didn't tell the community about this," Capozzi said. "I know the temple is in financial trouble, but at what price and what sacrifice to the community?"

A person close to the negotiations said that the temple would earn more than $2,800 a month for allowing T-Mobile to erect the cell tower, money that is sorely needed by the foundering temple. In addition, the contract calls for yearly raises and a guarantee that access to the tower would be outside the building.

Details like that, however, do not mollify the opponents of the plan.

Capozzi is concerned about the health hazards associated with a cell tower, as well as the potential that its placement near his home may decrease the value of his property.

"My house is going to drop in value because of this," he said. "Most people don't want these things near their homes."

Capozzi argued that West End Temple was turning into a bad neighbor, and feels they hid the cell tower deal from the community because they knew there would be opposition.

He vowed to fight to get the decision reversed, even if it means picketing the temple or going to court.

"They did this in secrecy," he told The Wave. "It is a tragedy for this community if this would happen. West End Temple has been here for a long time and nobody wants to see it go under. But we don't know what good living here will be if the radiation from these towers could kill us."

Capozzi has circulated a petition among residents expressing their displeasure with West End Temple's decision to install a cell phone tower. He claims to have obtained more than 100 signatures from local residents to date.

Ronnie Schwab, who recently took over the presidency on the resignation of the former president two weeks ago, insists, however, that she is doing nothing to harm the community.

"I love Rockaway," she said. "I live here too, and if I knew this was harmful, I would not even consider doing it. These cell towers are everywhere in Rockaway. I didn't think there would be any problems, it was a no-brainer, a simple thing."

Schwab says there is no turning back now.

"The contract is signed," she said. "This is a legal contract; you can't change your mind now."

According to Schwab, the towers are not expected to be installed until late in the summer.

Not if Capozzi and his neighbors have a say in it.

"We are going to fight this the whole way," Capozzi said. "It is a health first matter that must not take place."

Schwab says she was concerned about the health hazards and was drawn to her conclusion by an FCC representative who said that there was absolutely nothing to worry about.

The representative reportedly met with select parents of West End Temple last Sunday and that expert told the parents that there would be no ill effects should a tower be placed on the roof of the temple.

"We wanted the parents to feel comfortable about this. That is why an FCC expert was brought in to talk to them," Schwab said. "He had the proper FCC credentials."

Schwab then expressed her remorse about the growing concern in the Neponsit community.

"I would absolutely not want to hurt any kids," she said. "I care about this community. But I don't want to see the temple fold, because [what we're doing] is not harmful."

Capozzi and others say, however, that studies he found on the Internet say that the radiation can be dangerous and even deadly.

Both Schwab and Capozzi might be wrong, however.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, states that studies about the hazards of cell phones and cell phone towers have been inconclusive to this point due to the constant change in technologies associated with them.

Dr. Ron Melkin, an NIEHS researcher since 1980, would like to think that radiation from cell phones is not harmful, but cannot provide a definitive answer one way or the other.

"We are working hard to answer the same questions people have about cell phone radiation," Melkin told The Wave in an exclusive interview. "We are several years away from drawing any significant conclusions from our long-term effect studies."

Melkin says the studies already completed provide no conclusive answers to whether or not cell towers or cell phones pose long-term hazards, especially to children.

"No studies have been done with regards to children, as of yet," Melkin said. "But we do know that organs of children are more susceptible to permanent damage than those of adults."

Until those conclusions are reached, there is new legislation currently under review by the New York State Senate that would prohibit cell towers within 500 feet of a school in New York City.

The proposal, brought by Brooklyn State Senator Marty Golden, was introduced in the Senate in early February.

Golden contends that there is too much controversy associated with the potential health hazards and placement near children. Therefore, they should not be permitted near schools until the risks are clearly identified through proper research.

Rockaway City Councilman, Joseph P. Addabbo, Jr., sent a letter to West End Temple asking them to "respectfully reconsider their decision" about placing a cell tower on the roof of the temple.

He also feels that until it is known for sure that the cell towers are not harmful, children should not be put at risk for potential health hazards.

"When you have conflicting pieces of evidence, like you do with cell towers," Addabbo adds, "you must side with caution, especially with children."

Addabbo says he is pushing for a different kind of legislation, one that would require the property owner to notify the community board before installing any cell towers.

"All we ask for is for the community to have an input," he said. "Their input is very important to the public."

However, Addabbo does realize there is currently no law that would require West End Temple to do so.

"They are private property owners and it does produce a source of revenue," he said. "Therefore we could only do so much to prevent it, which is why I sent a letter asking them to reconsider."

Even though Schwab feels that West End Temple is justified in their actions, she is still prepared to defend the issue if it would go to court.

"I believe what we did was right," she said. "I am 100 percent confident, because we have studied the law. There is not much more we could have done."

There are some questions, however, even among the West End Temple's own congregants.

A group of temple members, including some of the board members who voted for the contract in the first place, have called for a meeting to reconsider the contract.

"If I had known that our decision would have caused such a firestorm, I never would have voted for it," said one board member, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "If this many people are opposed to it, and if there is even a one percent chance that it is dangerous, then the money is not worth it."

She pointed, however, to the myriad of cell towers already present in the neighborhood, including eight towers on top of Congregation Ohab Zedek on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Beach 135 Street, just a few blocks from PS 114, and the towers atop the apartment house on Newport Avenue and Beach 129 Street, just down the block from St. Francis de Sales School, as examples.

"We were really assured that the tower would not be a danger," she added, "but we don't need all this controversy and the split in the congregation. It's not worth it."

At press time, a number of congregants called The Wave to say that a meeting to rescind the plan would be "held shortly," but there was no indication when and if it would actually be held.

Schwab said on Thursday that the decision would be revisited at a trustee's meeting on Wednesday, March 19.

"We have a serious alternative suggestion," Schwab said, adding that she could not discuss the alternative, because she and others were in negotiation.

"The trustees voted for the contract, and I had no choice but to sign it as president," she said. "The trustees will have to vote to revisit the contract and for any alternatives. That is the way our bylaws require such things be done. Had somebody come to us early in the process and called for a meeting, we would have called that meeting. That never happened."

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