Despite the continued objections of nearby residents and several religious leaders, the Lower Moreland Township's Zoning Hearing Board voted unanimously to approve construction of a 130-foot T-Mobile cell-phone tower on land that, depending upon whom you ask, is either adjacent to, or part of, cemetery grounds.
An attorney representing a vocal group opposed to the project promised an appeal.
T-Mobile has asserted that the tower will be erected on leased land in front of the Lamb Funeral Home. According to the 21-page decision released by the board, the structure won't technically sit on the same property as the burial sites at Shalom Memorial Park and Forest Hills cemetery, although the same corporation does own all the land in question.
Opponents dispute that claim and argue that the tower's construction will be in direct proximity to burial sites. They insist that it will lower property values in the area, present a health risk to area residents and violate the sanctity of the space.
"T-Mobile has met all the objective standards entitling it to a special exception to permit the installation and operation of a telecommunications tower and facility at the subject site," according to the decision.
The document also stated that the project's detractors "have failed to demonstrate a high degree of probability that the use will have an adverse impact upon the public's health, safety, morals or general welfare."
At a sparsely attended Dec. 26 meeting -- one that followed a series of emotionally charged, jam-packed hearings that began in August -- zoning-board member Richard Moore read aloud a summary of the decision.
Following the announcement, a handful of people asked if they could voice their displeasure, but they were told that the debate had concluded, and the body had to move on to other business.
Nancy Sendecki, who lives adjacent to the cemetery grounds, left visibly upset, saying that "this zoning board is without a conscience, without morality."
According to a zoning hearing notice, the tower is expected to stand in the "front yard" of the Lamb Funeral Home on Byberry Road, and will be placed roughly 100 feet from the street. The property is situated in Huntingdon Valley, near the border with Northeast Philadelphia, and is owned by the Texas-based firm Service Corporation International. It's home to Shalom Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery, and Forest Hills Cemetery.
Patrick Lamb, a spokesman for T-Mobile, explained that the planned tower is meant to alleviate a gap in service for T-Mobile users.
"We've worked very hard to seek the best balance between the needs of residents and the needs of wireless users," he stated. "We do not expect to proceed with any construction until all approvals are in hand, and we have all the proper documents from the township."
Ronald Ziegler, a retired lawyer who represented a group of residents at the hearings, said that he planned to appeal the decision to the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas.
He was out of town and did not attend the Dec. 26 meeting.
"We have significant legal issues," said Ziegler, reached by phone the next day. He noted that a lawyer specializing in land-use issues would probably take over the case. "This is the first real test of having a cell-phone tower on a cemetery which is in a residential district."
During the earlier hearings, both Monsignor Paul V. Dogherty of St. Albert the Great Catholic Church in Lower Moreland and Rabbi Solomon Isaacson of Congregation Beth Solomon Kollel and Community Center in Philadelphia expressed discomfort at the idea of using burial grounds for commercial use.
"This is a terrible disgrace," said Isaacson, reached the day after the decision became public. The rabbi claimed that the tower would represent a desecration of the burial grounds, although he acknowledged that nothing in Jewish law says so explicitly.
"Certain things are appropriate," he said. "You wouldn't walk into a church or synagogue wearing a bikini. There is no law, but it is not appropriate. A cell tower has its place and its uses, but not here."