Cell tower may end up inside church steeple

BY SUE M. MORGAN Staff Writer

Staff Writer

SEA BRIGHT — Some might say that cell towers are ugly as sin, but members of the town’s only church think that placing a cellular antenna inside their building’s proposed new steeple could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Now members of the Sea Bright Methodist Church are seeking the blessing of the Borough Council as they move ahead with the plans to rebuild their steeple.

The church’s board of trustees is considering allowing one or more wireless carriers to rent the space inside the steeple, which has yet to be erected, for housing the cellular antenna, according to Jeremy Hudson, who chairs that board.

Addressing the council on June 21, Hudson expressed a desire to work with the borough, which is now searching for a suitable, yet out-of-the-way site, for a cell tower, which officials claim is needed to improve spotty mobile phone reception in town.

Locating a cellular antenna inside the replacement steeple could mutually benefit the town and the church, he noted.

“The cell tower would be concealed in our steeple,” Hudson said. “But we want to work in conjunction with the town. No matter what we do, we have to have the town’s approval.”

In December, the more than 100-year-old steeple was manually removed from the church’s belfry as a safety precaution when a strong windstorm threatened to topple it over onto streets or neighboring homes.

The church board has since talked to consultants working on behalf of several mobile carriers who have sought out the site where the original steeple once stood as a prospective new site for a cellular antenna, Hudson told the council.

Even a temporary cellular tower mounted on a flatbed truck proposed for placement at the borough end of the Highlands-Sea Bright Bridge by the state Department of Transportation (DOT), might not enhance the cell phone reception because it is too remote from the center of town, Hudson said.

The antenna in the church steeple, however, would be centrally located and would cover a greater radius and more users, he added.

“We think it is a great fit for the town,” Hudson said. “[The antenna] would provide a value-added service and it would be concealed.”

Council President Maria Fernandes was especially receptive.

“I think it’s a great idea. I’ve never been a fan of cell towers,” she said.

The borough has thought about placing a cellular tower near the municipally owned River Street pumping station and the Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L) substation or in the municipal parking area adjacent to the police headquarters and firehouse.

Finding a site that would be acceptable to all residents and erecting a tower that would be aesthetically pleasing is challenging, Fernandes acknowledged.

“No matter where you put it, it’ll be in someone’s backyard,” Fernandes said. “I think [putting it inside the steeple] is a great plan.”

Though the church does plan to eventually rebuild its steeple, it has not yet filed an application for review by the borough Planning and Zoning boards to do so, Hudson explained.

Any safety issues surrounding the steeple itself and the cellular antenna housed inside would be addressed during those board hearings, Borough Attorney Scott Arnette said.

It would be up to the companies renting the space to maintain their equipment, while the church would maintain the steeple, Hudson said.

“We’re only at the beginning of the process,” he said.

The proposed antenna would be mounted inside the steeple’s housing itself, not on a pole, Hudson said.

Some providers might not want to co-locate at the steeple if they need a place to store equipment, he noted.

“It might be a good fit for some providers, it might not,” Hudson said.

In the meantime, the DOT in conjunction with T-Mobile/Omnipoint Communications is forging ahead with its plans for the temporary tower at the foot of the bridge apart from Sea Bright’s governing body, according to Councilman William “Jack” Keeler.

“The DOT is going ahead regardless of Sea Bright,” Keeler said.

The temporary tower could remain in place until the DOT constructs a new, higher replacement bridge over the Shrewsbury River as it expects to do starting in 2007. Cellular antenna could then be installed on the new span, Keeler has said.

The borough has hired Innovative Engineering Inc., of Toms River, a subsidiary of Verizon, to research sites for a proposed cell tower, which would be owned by the municipality.

However, no contractor, including Verizon or its subsidiaries, has been awarded a contract to construct a tower as that will be decided by the competitive bidding process, Keeler said.