By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Whether the club is as ruthless as the neighbors make out is a matter of some debate. Apart from Jessica Teich, it does not appear anyone has been upbraided or thrown out of the club as a result of the cell-tower controversy. Mike Hyler, the general manager, said he knew of no instance of members being asked to leave for speaking their minds, on this issue or any other. But the members’ fear is palpable, not least because of a clause in the club’s bylaws granting it the right to expel anyone at will. “Trust me, we say anything, we rock the boat, we’re out,” was how Mike Rachmil, a film and television line producer who is part of the cell-tower campaign, characterized the prevailing view.
And relations between the club and the neighborhood have been strained for decades. In 1978, the club took the extraordinary step of inviting Chevron to prospect for oil on the club’s driving range. The idea was to construct a 150-foot derrick between two fairways that Chevron said would be painted “to match the trees.” Much of the neighborhood revolted, enlisting the Dolphin Group, the hard-
driving political PR firm, and persuading local celebrities, including Mel Brooks, to speak out. The arguments used then were not dissimilar to the ones deployed now: The club, they said, was shamelessly pursuing its own bottom line at the expense of the neighbors. After eight years of bitter fighting, the publication of an unflattering environmental-impact report finally persuaded Chevron to withdraw.
In 1988, a Japanese construction consortium bought the club from the Hathaway family for $108 million in a highly secretive purchase that scared the 600-odd members into thinking they would all be booted out to make way for new corporate members paying $250,000 each for memberships. The scare proved unfounded, but it set an uneasy tone with the new proprietor, Noboru Watanabe, who has remained a mostly absentee landlord. According to Rachmil, the Riviera has been operating at a loss for years and has never stopped looking for ways to increase revenue. “The club is in bad shape,” he said. The club itself refused to discuss its financial status.
In mid-March, the Riviera campaigners were dealt a disappointing setback. The zoning administrator ruled that he saw no impediment to the AT&T tower going ahead. The 16-page ruling shocked the neighborhood because it followed the phone company’s arguments — that the need for greater coverage was genuine, that there was no obvious alternative site, and that the proposed tower posed no threat except to human health (a consideration that was “out of bounds,” as per the Telecommunications Act) — hook, line and sinker. Following AT&T’s wording almost exactly, Dan Green dismissed concerns about diminishing property values with a brusqueness bordering on sarcasm. (Taking the cell-tower opponents’ argument to its logical conclusion, he wrote, “would preclude social interaction and civilization as we know it.”) He even brushed aside the misgivings of Councilwoman Miscikowski, who had asked tough questions about coverage overlaps with AT&T’s rivals. In fact, the only modification he demanded was that AT&T disguise the tower as a pine tree rather than a palm tree, because it would look nicer.
Michael Gendler, Jessica Teich’s entertainment-lawyer husband, was not entirely surprised by this setback. “Because the zoning administrator cannot look at health issues, and because he refused to look at property-value issues, we were deprived of our two best arguments,” he concluded glumly.
But the Riviera campaigners had advantages the likes of which other groups can only dream. For a start, money was no object. The environmental consultant hired at the outset cost several thousand dollars, and the banners and lawn signs several thousand more. The group was also blessedly unburdened by ideological agendas or factional infighting, the bane of many grassroots organizations. So their meetings were generally swift, efficient and to the point.
As political neophytes, they were not without their weaknesses, notably their desire not to give offense. This is, after all, a neighborhood of deeply conservative habits, with a disproportionate number of retirees who have spent whole lifetimes avoiding trouble. Many initially resisted the idea of erecting lawn signs, thinking them unsightly. Michael Jewison, a movie producer, worried about the slogans being too aggressive. “You can’t just disparage people in public!” he said, as though this would be the worst thing in the world.
In the end, the fighting spirit prevailed, especially after AT&T and the country club sought to denigrate the campaigners as a group of hysterical rich women with nothing better to do with their time than look for phony health scares and make futile attempts to hold back the tide of technology. Barring some sort of civil litigation, which looks unlikely, the 4-1 decision by the full Planning Commission to reject the cell-phone tower marks the end of the road for AT&T, at least at this site.
In the meantime, one of the least politicized social groups in this city was stirred into action — by corporate double-speak, by a country club that sometimes operates at cross purposes with its neighbors, and by a manifestly unfair system of government regulation distorted by special-interest lobbying. And they had a blast doing it.
“Here we were,” said Jessica Teich, with a glimmer of irony directed at her disdainful opponents, “all these suburban moms who never expected to be suburban moms, with an opportunity to use our brains before they are forever irradiated.”