After nearly two years of persistence, community organizing, and legal challenges, neighbors beat the town of Carmel, NY and Verizon Wireless over a backroom court settlement that would have authorized Verizon to install a 140-foot cell tower in front of their homes without public input or environmental review.
Hear residents of Mahopac, NY speak at their local public hearing regarding the proposed 140-foot Verizon cell tower:
Read the full news story by David McKay Wilson, and published by Lohud.com, below:
It cost neighbors close to $100,000 in legal fees to fight the town of Carmel and Verizon Wireless over a backroom court settlement that would have allowed the company to erect a 140-foot cell tower at the end of their quiet hilltop cul-de-sac, with no public process or environmental review.
Almost two years later, their investment paid off when State Supreme Justice Thomas Davis ruled that the town of Carmel had entered into an unlawful settlement to place the tower on Walton Drive, on one of the town’s highest peaks near the Westchester border.
The judge found that the town had no right to approve the deal by circumventing its planning and zoning boards. He also determined that Town Board member Frank Lombardi should not have voted on the settlement because he would have benefited financially from the deal as a member of the Maple Estate homeowners association that had leased its land to the mobile phone giant for $18,000 a year since 2018.
The settlement passed with the bare minimum of three votes, making Lombardi’s vote crucial. When reached by phone, Lombardi hung up after this writer identified himself.
Davis ruled that payments to the homeowners association would benefit Lombardi. He said town documents clearly showed that the tower was on land owned by the association.
“He should have disclosed his interest and recused himself from the Town Board’s vote,” wrote Davis.
Walton Drive residents said they felt betrayed by town officials.
“Nobody let us know that this was even happening, and nobody gave us any kind of ability to stop it,” said P.J. Gondolfo, who has lived on Walton Drive for 22 years. “The town officials were just unfair. They were unjust and they know it.”
Former supervisor: ‘I could have done a better job’
Former town Supervisor Ken Schmitt, who joined Lombardi and one other board member to approve the deal, now has second thoughts about his vote.
“It’s unfortunate that the residents of Walton Drive had to take legal action against Homeland Towers and the town,” he said. “I’m glad the residents prevailed. I could have done a better job, doing a deeper dive into the terms of the settlement.”
Schmitt took the blame for the town’s proposed settlement, which was drawn up by Town Attorney Gregory Folchetti and an attorney for Verizon Wireless and its construction partner, Homeland Towers.
“I fault myself,” said Schmitt, who was ousted by former Carmel Police Chief Michael Cazzari in a 2021 Republican primary. “I could have done a better job. It unfortunately got to a point where the residents had to take legal action.”
Cazzari and Folchetti declined comment.
Town of Carmel rejects proposed Verizon Wireless cell tower
The cell tower issue ended up in federal court in 2018 after the town’s Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals rejected an application by Verizon Wireless and its construction partner, Homeland Towers, to erect cell towers on Dixon Road and Croton Falls Road in Mahopac, which they said were necessary to cover some dead zones in town.
The Croton Falls Road site was adjacent to a 15-acre rental complex owned by then-Town Board member Mike Barile, and his daughter, Emily Boccardi. Barile did not run for reelection in 2021 after he and his partner were fined $105,000 and Barile was convicted of stealing sewer service from the town for his restaurant on Lake Mahopac.
The town’s rejection of Verizon Wireless’ proposal rejection followed the rules set up in the town’s zoning code. All homeowners within 1,000 feet of the proposed towers were notified of the proceedings before the town panels, and given the opportunity to speak at public hearings.
Grassroots opposition emerged at five meetings before the Planning Board and one before the Zoning Board of Appeals. Barile testified against the cell tower next to his land.
The planning board decision found that the towers failed to protect the suburban and rural nature of the town and would hurt property values.
Verizon lawsuit ends with a settlement
That brought an expected lawsuit by Verizon Wireless in U.S. District Court under federal communications law. That statute allows proposed cell towers to be rejected, but also typically requires a municipality town to come up with an alternative site.
The town settled on a parcel owned by Maple Hill Estates, a 71-unit condominium complex on 71 acres two miles away from Croton Falls Road. The site was on the far eastern edge of the condominium’s property — out of sight for the condominium owners, but close to the homes on Walton Drive.
Town zoning law requires a cell tower to be no higher than 75 feet and at least 500 feet from neighboring homes.
Verizon Wireless’ proposal would have put the tower an estimated 130 feet from the nearest house. The company’s monopole would be 140 feet tall, almost twice the allowable height. Verizon Wireless acknowledged that zoning variances were required.
The residents were not notified until after the settlement was signed. And the settlement said that the building permit issued by the town was all that was required, with no action required by the planning board or zoning board.
Back in 2019, Schmitt told the homeowners they had no recourse because the deal was part of a consent order from the federal court.
Davis ruled that settlements in federal court cannot trump local zoning laws.
‘Something had to be done’
What happens next remains to be seen. Verizon Wireless and Homeland Towers could appeal the state court ruling. Or the case could return to federal court, where Verizon Wireless filed its original case about the cell towers on Dixon Road and Croton Falls Road was filed.
Walton Drive resident Rob Cavallaro, who led the opposition, said he didn’t like having to spend his own money to fight the town government where he lives. But he said sometimes you have to stand up to injustice.
“Five of us kicked in to pay the lawyer,” he said. “There’s a small balance we are still paying. It hurts. But something had to be done. And hopefully Homeland Towers goes away.”