As wealthy New Yorkers flee the city en masse amid the pandemic, many of them have flocked to the cushy confines of East Hampton. And—it turns out—their presence is now acting as the accelerant to a years-long feud about cell service and spotty reception out in the posh wilds of furthest Long Island. Millionaires don’t want their property values to plummet in the shadow of “grotesque” cell towers, while city officials and AT&T lawyers argue that a lack of good internet is a public safety imperative and visitors want access to all their usual digital conveniences, up to and including Instagram.
Theirs is a struggle as old as private property itself, illustrating an ideological divide where no one wins—and everyone looks like a total loser!
In February, the city of East Hampton greenlit plans to erect a massive cell tower in Northwest Woods, East Hampton, and was promptly sued by residents in the area. (As a reminder, the Hamptons are basically a sandbar in the Atlantic with an unusual number of per-capita millionaires, accessible from the city via one traffic-clogged road.) In the latest update on this battle, Page Six reports venture capitalist Alan Patricof, founder and managing director of Apex Partners, took out a full-page ad in a recent edition of the East Hampton Star. “We’ve had it up to here with horrible, nonexistent cellphone service,” it reads, obliquely referencing the city’s long struggle to get towers built.
Patricof tells Page Six that “[cell service] is a pain in the neck for everybody out here, and it does have serious security implications.” Meanwhile, Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc tells the outlet that with the full-time population of the Hamptons on the rise, as more and more rich New Yorkers flee for sunnier prospects, “we have a dramatic increase in the people working remotely and taking up bandwidth.”
Patricof’s full-page ad is only the latest installment in a long series of struggles for better wireless across the Hamptons. One dates back as far as 2015, when Cingular Wireless—now AT&T—attempted to secure permits for a cell tower in Springs, East Hampton, according to the East Hampton Star. One proposal would see it added to the roof of St. Peter’s Chapel on Old Stone Highway, while another proposed a 50ft bell tower to disguise the antenna next to the chapel.
So what are residents saying? Well, quite a bit, unsurprisingly. Both proposals faced “fierce opposition from the church’s neighbors” at an East Hampton Town Planning Board public hearing in June. The East Hampton Star reports: “Valerie Coster, a neighbor, told the board the ‘unsightly and ungodly high’ tower would indeed impact its environment and would endanger the lives of those who, like her, live in the fall zone.” Even Laurie Anderson, the wife of the late musician Lou Reed, has involved herself in the struggle, telling the planning board at that hearing: “I just recently learned about this proposal, and I was shocked. This plan is egregiously out of character with the community.” One resident, Rameshwar Das, cited an email he had written the board at that same hearing: “To have this special community defaced by this grotesque campanile—transplanted from Plaza San Marco—is literally the height of bad taste.”
Further complaints stem not just from a desire for unblemished real estate, but also the town code, which mandates that a tower cannot be built near any properties or outdoor spaces within two times its height.
Elsewhere, AT&T is fighting another battle along Bull Path, in Northwest Woods, East Hampton, over a proposed 185-foot cell tower on land adjacent to the East Hampton Fire Department. In 2017, the company sued the city for denying its application to build a wholly separate antenna on a wind turbine at Iacono Farms. The East Hampton Star reported that the proposal for the new tower, behind the fire station, came about in the settlement, which promised an “expedited review process from the planning, zoning, and architectural review boards.”
Like the residents along Old Stone Highway in Springs, East Hampton, property owners on Bull Path object to the tower. At an East Hampton Town Planning Board hearing in February, after the board approved the building plans, a lawyer for Bull Path homeowners said the tower will “dominate the skyline and destroy the views of every home around it.” According to local reports, he even gave board members letters from local real estate agents verifying that property values will decrease as a result of its erection. Another resident, David Brown, dramatically announced: “You’re making a statement that we are second-class citizens by putting a huge horrible tower in my neighborhood where I live with my children. You should not put it in anyone’s backyard, you should put it in a commercial location.”
The hearing in February came amidst a lawsuit from Northwest Woods residents. 27East reported that Andrew Campanelli, representing multiple homeowners, was drafting a lawsuit to challenge the board’s decisions to go ahead with the tower’s construction. By July, a third lawsuit was filed by two Bull Path homeowners, according to 27East. They seek $1.5 million in damages from AT&T and the city “for the expected loss in value to their property if a 180-foot cellular tower the town Planning Board approved last winter is constructed near their homes.” Their lawyer, also Campanelli, claimed the tower’s rushed application process bypassed his client’s civil rights. “The [Planning Board] gave [AT&T] unlimited time to present their substantial evidence in support of their application, but when I got up and wanted to rebut that evidence, they only gave me three minutes. It’s impossible to present substantial evidence in three minutes.”
So, for now, the cell tower in Northwest Woods is moving forward with construction. Local news reports the site behind the firehouse has already been cleared, lawsuits be damned, while elsewhere, residents of Springs, East Hampton take out full-page ads demanding better cell service. It should be noted here that Patricof, who took out the ad, is (unsurprisingly!) one of the investors behind Bumble and Goop.
The matter of who’s in the right is, ultimately, of little consequence here. Hamptonites have made it clear that their rejection of faster internet is not a moralistic cause, so much as a matter of the damage cell towers might inflict on their property values. Meanwhile, AT&T and the city seem dead set on moving forward with the plans, no matter the fervor of East Hampton residents. Where private property and privatized infrastructure clash, everyone’s a chump!