Trustees, leading village employees and residents came together at a public work session on Nov. 16 to discuss proposed changes to Scarsdale’s wireless facilities ordinance.

“The board has taken on this discussion because we want to close gaps in service, which we believe is essential from a health and safety perspective,” Mayor Jane Veron said, echoing comments she made at a previous village work session Oct. 12. At the same time, she added, the board of trustees also intended to develop an ordinance that would allow the village to exercise the maximum regulatory power allowed by law.

“We’ve been working on this code for some time,” said village attorney Daniel Pozin, adding that the village’s goal was “to maximize local authority” while also ensuring that all village standards were compliant with state and federal laws. In developing the proposed revision to the existing code, Pozin said, village employees incorporated suggestions from Robert Berg, a Scarsdale resident and attorney with experience litigating cases related to radiofrequency (RF) radiation exposure, and his daughter Zoe Berg, a former Scarsdale resident who is currently the project director of Americans for Responsible Technology, a nonprofit organization that advocates local control over wireless infrastructure.

At a previous village work session Oct. 12, Robert and Zoe Berg each raised concerns about the possible health effects of RF exposure as well as the potential threat to local aesthetics and neighborhood character posed by new wireless facilities. 

One key point of difference between the existing ordinance and the proposed revision has to do with setback requirements — regulations that mandate a certain amount of space separating wireless facilities and sensitive locations like residences or schools. Whereas the existing ordinance includes no such setback requirements, the proposed revision would mandate setbacks of 500 feet from schools and day cares, 100 feet from any existing residential structure, and 200 feet from other facilities.

But at the work session, attorney Gerard Lederer of the firm Best Best & Krieger, which is advising the village board on telecom policy, reminded those in attendance that federal standards prevent the village from enacting policies that would be so restrictive as to constitute an effective prohibition of wireless service in a given area.

Village planner Greg Cutler explained that in Scarsdale, which is overwhelmingly zoned as residential, it was challenging to enact substantial setbacks for residential structures without potentially violating that federal standard. “We think 100 feet setback is reasonable based on the zoning in a large part of the village,” Cutler said, adding “We’re trying to do the most we can to space these things out without effectively prohibiting them. That’s the approach we’ve taken.”

Veron requested clarity on how the village planner, together with the planning board, would establish priorities for where new wireless facilities would be located. “I want to include our priorities in the code. Instead of leaving it up to subjective judgment, we should instead have a set of standards for what constitutes the least intrusive option for our village,” she said.

Pozin reported that village employees were already working on such a document, and would integrate the board’s recommendations in the coming days.

Speaking during the public comment period of the meeting, Robert Berg acknowledged that the proposed revision represented “a tremendously different code” than what is currently in place, noting the changes were generally positive. But he said there were still additional improvements he would like to see, including stricter setback requirements for schools and a mandate that wireless facilities operators carry liability insurance for negative health effects related to RF exposure.

Robert Berg also requested clarity regarding whether public hearings would be held to consult with residents about the siting of proposed new wireless facilities. Cutler explained that, under the terms of the proposed ordinance, all applications would have to be considered and voted upon by the planning board. “I would think the planning board would open up any application to public comment. I’d be surprised if they didn’t,” said Cutler. Veron, who previously had served on the planning board, confirmed that holding public hearings prior to making application decisions was common practice.

Jeremy Gans also spoke during the public comment period, reading a prepared statement that claimed dissatisfaction with existing levels of wireless coverage in Scarsdale was widespread. “I understand most speakers have lobbied for a more restrictive code,” he said, suggesting the board had failed to “do its own due diligence” and instead had relied entirely on “the word of interested speakers.”

“It’s 2021. This year, and moving forward, cell service is just as much of a priority as electricity,” Gans added, mentioning that there is already electricity infrastructure in place that may negatively affect neighborhood aesthetics, but which village residents tend to regard as unambiguously positive.

Referencing the need for parents to monitor children when they are away from home, especially in cases where children might be diabetic or have dangerous health conditions, Gans insisted that “the lack of wireless service is a real health issue.” 

“I think there’s a balance here that delivers wireless service to our residents, who have been begging for improved service for years, while also balancing aesthetic and health concerns,” Gans said.

In his comments, Robert Berg expressed sympathy with residents who might be reasonably frustrated with limited cell service. But he also suggested that cell phone functions like calling and texting are typically supported by large towers, and so residents’ concerns about improved service might not be served by the proliferation of “small cell” facilities, which enhance wireless internet connections and are often located in residential areas. “Scarsdale is a unique town. Most of our residents have high-speed internet in their homes. This is hardly a deprived community when it comes to high-speed internet access,” he said.

Both Mayor Veron and Deputy Mayor Justin Arest urged village employees and the board to move quickly on this matter, with Arest saying, “We need to remain cognizant of our level of exposure currently as we move this forward.”

“We want to proceed in short order,” Veron agreed, commending all participants for their constructive feedback during the work session. “It is 2021,” she said, alluding to Gans’ earlier comment, “and the overarching goal is to improve cell service in our town.”

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