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Mahwah residents debate where to build new cell phone tower

MAHWAH, N.J. -- The northeastern side of Mahwah has long been a dead zone for cell phone service, but there is currently a plan in the works to address it. Only, residents and town officials can't seem to agree on where to build a new cell phone tower.

What they do agree on -- is that this tower is crucial and way overdue.

"I just, I passed out and fell flat on my face," recalls Denise Tarantino, whose medical emergency in 2016 highlighted the pitfalls of being disconnected. "My cell phone was useless and it was right there by my side."

Luckily, Tarantino's brother found her laying in the front yard and rushed her to a hospital.

Since then, more residents have come forward with their concerns about being unable get a cell signal or reach a landline in an emergency. At the last town council meeting, one said he suffered from a heart problem last month and afraid about being unable to reach first responders in an emergency. Another man said his autistic son struggles to call an Uber for work, because often drivers will lose signal and cancel the ride.

Town officials say the cellular service void along Airmont Avenue, stretching from Suffern to Saddle River, has only worsened after a nearby building with signal boosters was taken down.

Even Mahwah Police computers go down when officers respond to this section of town.

"It's struggling to stay connected right now," said Mahwah Police Capt. Stuart Blank, as he drove down East Mahwah Road.

While officers can rely on old fashioned radios, more modern means of communicating can provide crucial information to an officer out on a 911 call.

"It's important to have that connectivity with the other officers working because they may know something you don't know," said Capt. Blank.

The town has narrowed down their plan to build a cell phone tower to two sites that are both owned by the municipality: one is at Fire House Number 3 off of Masonicus Road, the other is at the water tower off of Nilsen Avenue. Currently, Mahwah has issued request for proposals (RFP) to build on the water tower site. Several companies are expected to present plans to the town to build there.

Mahwah previously considered a site across from Secor Farms that is owned by the town's department of education, but that plan deflated after running into environmental issues. Specifically, town officials said the cell carrier selected to build there couldn't proceed because of wetlands on site.

Mahwah town council president Rob Hermansen says this is one reason why the council has re-started the RFP process at the water tower site, rather than at the fire house. Maps show a creek runs near the fire house.

Town officials have heard from plenty of residents with opposing views on where the water tower should go.

"Everyone wants coverage but no one wants a tower in their backyard," said Mahwah town council president Rob Hermansen.

At Mahwah's last town council meeting, residents from Indian Fields, a development within the dead zone, voiced concerns over the town's current RFP to build at the water tower site. These residents stated that cell service heat maps provided to the town by AT&T show the water tower site would provide coverage to less people than the fire house site.

"It looks like its gonna benefit half of Airmont, New York but it will not reach some of the developments down here such as won’t reach some of the developments down here such as Indian Field, Apple Ridge, Paddington Square," said Howard Waldrop, a resident of Indian Field.

Waldrop and others have also argued that the fire house property off of Masonicus is large and forested, therefore it could provide more natural cover for an unsightly necessity.

"What were asking is: let both sites be vetted," said Waldrop.