LIVINGSTON—The battle over Blue Hill continues in court this week.
The conflict involves whether the view from Olana, a National Historic Landmark, should be considered in plans for a new radio communications tower on nearby private property. In a decision issued at the end of March a Judge Jonathan Nichols ruled that the Olana Partnership and Scenic Hudson can bring that case to court.
The deadline for written arguments in the case was Monday, June 6.
There are currently two radio communications towers on Blue Hill, a ridge that runs east-west a short distance south of the Olana State Historic Site. Blue Hill appears in some of the work of Frederic Church, the 19th century artist who designed and built the iconic Olana mansion and landscaped the surrounding property.
The 120-foot-tall radio towers on Blue Hill were built about 20 years ago and are used by local emergency services. In 2007 the tower owner, Eger Communications, proposed replacing the towers with one new one, which would be wider and stand 190 feet tall.
The Town of Livingston Planning Board approved the application, but before it could be built, the Olana Partnership and Scenic Hudson stepped in, offering an alternative plan that would see an additional tower at the same height as the existing ones, saying their tower plan would have “no additional impacts on the views from Olana.”
Eger Communications rejected that approach and together with the Livingston Planning Board asked the court to rule that neither the Olana Partnership nor Scenic Hudson had legal standing to challenge the company’s plan.
In a decision issued in April of this year, Acting State Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Nichols denied a motion by Eger Communications and the town. The judge found that the partnership and the environmental advocacy organization did have legal standing to sue, clearing the way for the sides to argue in court whether the new tower may be built as proposed or whether Eger must file a new application so that the Livingston Planning Board can consider the visual impact of a new tower.
Jacqueline Philips Murray, the attorney for Mark Eger, said last month that Eger Communications had filed all relevant paperwork in early May. Olana and Scenic Hudson have until June 6 to file their arguments, after which the court will rule on whether the tower may be built as proposed.
It will probably take several months for the court to decide this issue, but Ms. Murray said, “We expect that the permits will be upheld.”
The tower proposed to replace the existing towers would be 11 feet wider at the bottom, a little over 2 feet wider at the top and 70 feet taller. Jeffrey Anzevino, director of Land Use Advocacy at Scenic Hudson, said that his organization hired a telecommunications architect to design an alternative tower that would be shorter than the existing towers and built behind them so it couldn’t be seen from Olana.
But Ms. Murray said that approach would not work because it would affect other towers in the emergency communications network. “You can’t lower that tower without a snowball effect to the other towers,” she said.
Mr. Anzevino said that Scenic Hudson and the Olana Partnership do not dispute Eger’s right to build any tower, but they want it is designed with input from their two groups. Scenic Hudson takes issue with the process, he said. “We are interested in a tower that meets the needs of emergency services,” but the two groups also want the plan to consider the views from Olana, which Mr. Anzevino said the town did not consider.
Public hearings on this issue have been held by the Livingston Zoning and Planning boards since at least 2007. Mr. Anzevino said that in order to avoid drawn-out conflicts like this in the future, applicants “can work proactively with stakeholders” in the area, and that applicants should consider “meeting with us earlier in the process [and] investigating alternatives.”
But asked whether a legal battle over a new Blue Hill tower was inevitable from the start, Mr. Eger said of the conflict, “I don’t see any way this could have been avoided.”
The Livingston Planning Board began the process required by the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) in 2010, but after procedural delays and requests for deferrals made by Eger Communications, the SEQRA process began again in March 2013. The Planning Board voted unanimously in favor of approving Eger’s application last summer.
The Olana Partnership and Scenic Hudson believe that vote “cut short” a proper review and say Livingston Zoning and Planning boards did not follow the town zoning code or consider alternatives. They also say that the proposal did not include an environmental impact statement.
Ms. Murray, Mr. Eger’s attorney, said that the town “thoroughly reviewed” the plans, and that their “conclusion is entirely reasonable.”
One of the legal issues in the case is whether the towers are “substantially contiguous” to the Olana Historic Site–close enough so that it could have a visual impact. Those opposed to the current tower plan believe the tower does fit the definition in terms of Olana. The Livingston Planning Board decided that it does not.
The current towers serve emergency services in the county, including fire companies and emergency medical responders. The stated purpose of the new tower is to fill in gaps in the communications networks of these responders. The majority of public comments in favor of the new tower made reference to the necessity of better radio communication for emergency services in Columbia County, with several people echoing the statement of former Fire Coordinator James Briscoe that “you can’t put a view before a life.”
In a press release following Judge Nichols’ decision The Olana Partnership and Scenic Hudson said they still seek a “win-win” compromise that improves emergency communications and protects views from the historic landmark.