A Debate That Towers Over Those at Rest

The Zoning Hearing Board of Lower Moreland Township will need to hear more testimony before deciding whether to allow cell-phone carrier T-Mobile to build a 130-foot cell tower on the grounds of Shalom Memorial Park and Forest Hills Cemetery near Byberry and Pine roads.

At a Sept. 25 hearing held at the Huntingdon Valley Library, angry citizens protested the proposed resolution, citing a desecration of cemetery grounds, a decrease in property values and possible health risks for residents in the immediate area.

The meeting served as the community's chance to present its case against the proposed plan. T-Mobile — which already has approval from cemetery owners — presented its side of the matter to the board on Aug. 28.

Both cemeteries, in addition to the Lamb Funeral Home, are on one contiguous property and owned by the same corporation.

Rabbi Solomon Isaacson, whose Congregation Beth Solomon Kollel and Community Center is a short drive from the proposed tower site, said that many buried at Shalom Memorial are descendants of Jews who lost their lives at Babi Yar, a ravine in Ukraine where mass murders occurred during World War II.

"It's a desecration," he said when asked about Jewish law regarding commercial use on cemetery grounds. "The bodies that are there are considered holy in the sense that, at one time, they held a little piece of God. Therefore, we hold a cemetery as a holy place."

But is the proposed site technically on cemetery grounds?

Chris Schubert, attorney for T-Mobile, showed witnesses a sketch of the area, and noted that the tower would be on a "separate parcel" of land "91/2 acres" away from burial sites.

In essence, the Lamb Funeral Home sits between the two cemeteries, and the tower, according to a spokesman for Shalom, will be situated on Lamb property.

"It doesn't matter," replied the rabbi. "Just the idea that it's anywhere on the cemetery grounds is a desecration of the holiness of the ground."

While Shalom Memorial contains graves strictly for Jews, Forest Hills is mixed with both Jewish and Christian graves.

Monsignor Paul V. Dogherty of St. Albert the Great Catholic Church in Lower Moreland said that "the term 'desecration' is a little strong. We use that word for the immediate desecration or violation of the specific region or a specific grave."

He said that the plan violated the Christian obligation to protect holy grounds.

Greener Pastures?

To prevent an eyesore, T-Mobile plans to build the tower to look like a tree, with a brown shaft made to resemble tree bark, and fabricated pine that will appear as branches and conceal all wires. Local residents, however, said that the 130-foot structure would stick up higher than the existing tree line — and that it would hardly look like a real tree.

"It's going to affect my property value," said Bruce Geiger, who said he lives 1,500 feet from the site. "I wouldn't buy a house near a cell tower."

One of the company's reasons for proposing the construction is to clear up a gap in coverage on Byberry Road, explained T-Mobile spokesperson Patrick Lamb, in an interview after the meeting. (He has no connection to the Lamb Funeral Home.)

Local residents, such as Judy Moss, took to the podium and noted that they get excellent reception. According to Moss, who lives across the street from the cemeteries, her T-Mobile cell phone is so clear that she's able to use it as her only line.

"I've never lost a signal," said Moss, whose late husband is buried at Shalom. "It works fine. I don't need a tower across from my home. Please do not disrespect our dead in this way. It's not necessary."

Lamb stressed that a cell tower would increase the region's efficiency in fielding and processing emergency calls.

In June, July and August of 2007, Lower Moreland residents made 5,120 calls to 9-1-1 on T-Mobile's network, he reported.

"How many had to dial 9-1-1 more than once?" posed Lamb. "How many didn't have a good connection while talking?"

If a coverage gap does exist, many local residents wondered why the company doesn't place antennas on existing structures, like telephone poles.

"We really tried hard to use existing structures," said Lamb. "It makes no sense to invest in a pole, if a suitable structure could fill the coverage gap."

Larry Holman, senior vice commander of the Jewish War Veterans, said that it is the job of veterans to honor the graves of fallen soldiers, many of whom lie in both cemeteries.

"Every veteran that I know treats every grave site of their brethren as if that brethren was buried in Arlington," said Holman, who places American flags on grave sites on Memorial Day. "This is a disgrace."

Ronald Ziegler, the attorney for the community protesters, said that the case is the first of its kind nationally "in which a zoning board is asked to approve, as a special exception, a commercial use within a cemetery, which is in a residential district."

Lamb, however, said that a cell tower does sit on cemetery grounds in Dauphin County, Pa.

"We have cell sites in many churches throughout the area," he said, "many of which have burial grounds attached to them."

During the hearing, Schubert also asked Isaacson about the Lamb Funeral Home, which operates within cemetery grounds and is a commercial business that turns a profit.

"There are no stores or vending machines," answered Isaacson. "There's no business other than funeral business or cemetery business."

As the 31/2-hour meeting wore on, Elina Gitlevich told the board — and what was left of the once-100-person audience — that she was concerned about possible health risks.

"Will the frequency waves affect my child? I don't want my child to get a brain tumor."

Lamb responded that wireless devices are all around us, and that a cell tower emits less than 500 watts of electricity; radio stations can deliver 30,000.

The board will reconvene on Oct. 23 at the Lower Moreland Township Building to hear more testimony from both sides.



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