Dewey Beach residents lead charge against cell towers

Lawsuit seeks to remove, block future beach installations
June 22, 2021

Dewey Beach's Alex Pires is taking on Verizon in a class-action lawsuit filed June 21 seeking to remove five 5G poles on the beach and prevent the telecom giant from installing any more.

The lawsuit filed in Delaware Court of Chancery asks the court to expedite proceedings and issue a temporary restraining order against Verizon to stop it from erecting cell towers on sand dunes or the beach east of Route 1, and to take down the five already put up.

“I don't think it's healthy for our society when billion-dollar companies walk all over small towns like Dewey,” Pires said, who is joined on the complaint by his wife Diane Cooley, also an attorney, and Dewey Beach resident John Snow. “The least we can do is put up a fight.”

And fight they will.

The experienced litigator, who made a name for himself by suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture over discriminatory practices against Black farmers, and Cooley live on Dickinson Avenue less than a block away from a cell tower placed on Rodney Avenue; Snow lives on Bellevue Street about three blocks from the Rodney tower.

Three poles were installed without permits being obtained from Dewey Beach, while two other installations did not follow proper permitting requirements, the lawsuit states.

“Due process means everyone has to follow the law. Everyone has to apply for building permits,” Pires said. “Verizon should have applied for five permits and followed the rules. Instead, they cheated and applied for only two, and those two applications were incomplete and misleading.”

According to the lawsuit, Verizon could install up to eight more cell towers on the sand dunes.

Verizon did not respond to a request for comment.

Dewey officials have publicly denounced the poles, and have tried to regulate wireless facilities since 2020. In March, commissioners unanimously voted to amend the town's agreement with the Delaware Department of Transportation, taking DelDOT out of the town's permitting process except for rights of way on and adjacent to Routes 1 and 1A. Commissioners voted June 11 to hire a consultant to assist with wireless facilities and 5G pole placement application review.

The push for cell tower installations in the beach town has been years in the making, as cellphone giants have been marketing phones with 5G capability, creating a buzz for their products while promising better cellphone service. In 2017, Gov. John Carney passed his Advanced Wireless Infrastructure Investment Act, which authorized wireless providers to install poles on state rights-of-way to increase connectivity.

Route 1 option

The lawsuit points to two cell tower permits along Route 1 as proof that Verizon could install its structures away from the beach.

“Instead of pursuing a cooperative process in which Verizon worked with the public and Dewey Beach to find more appropriate, less obstructive settings for the cell towers, Verizon chose to pressure the town employees and create obstructions on precious natural landscape that negatively affect Dewey Beach residents,” the lawsuit states.

Building permits were signed under duress over the objection of Dewey Beach's acting town manager and mayor, the suit states.

Pires likens Dewey's fight against Verizon to that of David and Goliath.

“Verizon has 132,000 employees and assets of $316 billion. Dewey Beach has 341 residents, 32 employees and no assets other than an old building, some equipment/cars and a rainy-day fund,” the suit states.

In Dewey Beach's 100 years of existence, the suit states, it has never placed a permanent pole or structure on the beach. “The cell towers are eyesores, highly visible structures placed on an otherwise natural setting – one which residents of Dewey Beach expect to be preserved in accordance with the natural surroundings,” the suit states. “Moreover, the cell towers disrupt the enjoyment renters and visitors, who are paying for the enjoyment of unobstructed ocean views, expect when they vacation in Dewey Beach.”

Pires said Verizon should not be allowed to operate above the law, and neither should the state or any of its departments. “The state doesn't own anything. The people who live in Delaware own the beaches,” he said.

No more beach towers

In an effort to prevent more beachfront cell towers being installed, the lawsuit asks the court for an injunction to prevent Verizon from erecting cell towers on Dewey Beach's oceanside sand dunes. The suit also asks the court to make Verizon remove all the cell towers it has erected on the beach, and asks the court to expedite its decision on the matter.

“I think we, the residents, should win. I hope we win. But big corporations never admit they’re wrong. It's going to be a battle. So my expectations are modest,” Pires said. “We may lose our lawsuit, but Verizon is going to get a bloody nose during the fight. Maybe more.”

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter