Hempfield official's land targeted in request for exception to rules to allow cell tower

Sign up for one of our email newsletters.Updated 57 minutes ago A Hempfield board must decide whether to give Verizon an exception to township rules to build a 199-foot cell tower on a supervisor's land — and pay him an undisclosed amount of money....

Hempfield official's land targeted in request for exception to rules to allow cell tower

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Updated 57 minutes ago

A Hempfield board must decide whether to give Verizon an exception to township rules to build a 199-foot cell tower on a supervisor's land — and pay him an undisclosed amount of money.

The Hempfield Township Zoning Hearing Board rejected a similar request about three years ago on another resident's property less than a half-mile away.

Verizon wants to build a tower near Fort Allen Elementary School to fill gaps in its coverage southwest of Greensburg. The company has proposed building the tower off Baltzer Meyer Pike on 44 acres owned by Supervisor John Silvis.

Township regulations require new cell towers be at least two miles from the nearest existing tower. The proposed tower would be 1.5 miles from one to the south.

“If it wasn't any good before, why would it be good now?” asked Dennis Henry, the developer and owner of a construction firm who in May 2014 proposed to lease part of his property off Middletown Road to Verizon for a tower.

Silvis opposed that plan as a neighbor, citing the proposed tower's proximity to Fort Allen Elementary. The tower proposed for his land is 1,700 feet from the school, or about 500 feet farther than the earlier proposal.

The zoning hearing board is a quasi-judicial body appointed by supervisors. All five members have either been appointed or reappointed during Silvis' 12 years as a supervisor.

“It's a private issue, a private matter, on private property,” Silvis told the Tribune-Review. “I just happen to be a public servant.”

The supervisors' solicitor, Scott Avolio, said the zoning board is independent of the supervisors, who do not get a vote on whether to approve the tower's construction.

Officials with the state ethics commission said the independence of the zoning hearing board helps insulate Silvis from a conflict of interest and allows him to seek the same zoning exceptions as any other landowner in the township. No case law or previous ethics board opinions appear to have addressed the same issue.

Silvis declined to say how much Verizon or its developer would pay to use part of his land, saying the lease was not yet finalized.

A copy of Silvis's lease agreement included in the application had all payment amounts redacted, which zoning hearing board Solicitor Brenda Sebring said was “not unusual” for contracts included in zoning applications. No proposed lease with Henry was left inside the file from 2014.

Hugh Odom, whose Tennessee-based company Vertical Consultants advises landowners on tower lease negotiations, estimated a lease with Verizon for a site like Silvis's could range from $1,500 to $1,800 a month, depending on how much of a gap it fills in the network and how many additional customers the tower would let the company reach.

Neighbor Scott Graham has questioned whether Silvis can ethically offer his property for development and have a financial stake in its approval. He said he will ask for Silvis's resignation as a supervisor if the zoning board approves the tower.

“I love Hempfield Township and all the people who live here. I would not do anything to hurt either one,” Silvis said after Graham confronted him at the most recent supervisors meeting.

The zoning board heard the proposal in January but postponed any decision to at least Tuesday so members could get more information from the applicants and compare the proposal with the one from 2014.

The board rejected the Henry property tower in June 2014 on the grounds that Verizon couldn't prove that putting antennas on existing towers north and south of the area wouldn't cover the gap just as well as building a new tower in the middle.

“(The proposed tower) was not the least intrusive means of remedying the gap in coverage that applicant claims exists in Fort Allen, Hempfield Township and along Route 66,” the board wrote.

Moon-based attorney Mark Aletto, who represented Verizon, said the company didn't see sufficient grounds to appeal the 2014 rejection to the Court of Common Pleas.

Verizon has since put an antenna on the tower to the north, which is 1.6 miles from the Silvis property site. Coverage maps included in the application for the Silvis property still indicated gaps around Fort Allen.

The FCC has 111 licenses for active communications towers in Westmoreland County, though that number may also include radio towers used by entities like the state police.

The Zoning Hearing Board will consider the application at 6 p.m. Tuesday. If they vote that night, board members will have 30 days to issue a written opinion outlining their reasoning.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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