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by Jonathan Thomas
The town of Brooksville, which has 51 square miles of land and water area within its boundaries, may soon have two cell phone communications towers. By comparison, the city of Ellsworth, which comprises 81.5 square miles according to the city’s Web site, has eight cell phone towers. Five of Ellsworth’s towers are as tall or taller than the 250-foot tower now being built by U.S. Cellular on the Ferry Road in the northern part of Brooksville.
Many Maine municipalities, including Ellsworth, have regulations that control the location and other aspects of cell towers. Steps by tower companies to build towers in places some residents find inappropriate has prompted petitions—as in Brooksville—to enact a moratorium ordinance until a suitable regulating ordinance is prepared and enacted.
What would a tower moratorium ordinance do, if enacted?
Brooksville selectmen have two cell tower moratorium ordinances before them. At their September 15 meeting, the selectmen confirmed that there would be a hearing on both moratorium ordinances on Thursday, September 23, at 6 p.m. The location has been moved to the Brooksville Community Center in Bucks Harbor to accommodate more people.
One of the moratorium ordinances was prepared by the selectmen in response to an informal petition. The second was presented by a formal citizens’ petition, because of dissatisfaction with the selectmen’s version, and was prepared by a Bar Harbor attorney.
With about 15 people present at that selectmen’s meeting, Chairman John Gray read a recent letter from the town’s attorney in which he suggested that the town hold a special town meeting to vote on the citizens’ petition moratorium ordinance in open session, as requested by the petition. Within 14 days of that meeting, the town would hold a referendum—that is, secret ballot vote—on the moratorium ordinance that the selectmen recommend as an alternative to the one presented by citizens’ petition.
There was extended discussion about how the referendum would be structured, especially since it appeared that the results of that vote could supercede the outcome of the open town meeting vote on the citizens’ ordinance taken a few days previously. Gray said the selectmen would try to clarify and resolve these issues as soon as possible, and to set dates for both votes at their 7 p.m. meeting on September 16.
Lynne Williams is the Bar Harbor attorney who drafted the moratorium ordinance submitted by citizen petition. It would apply “to all Tower projects not completed and operating as of July 1, 2010.”
When asked what effect this moratorium would have if enacted by Brooksville voters, Williams said, “It is my opinion…that the CEO [code enforcement officer] will be obligated to issue Stop Work Orders on both [the Ferry Road and Town House Road] projects.”
Williams added, “Because they [the cell tower developers] are hurrying up with their work, they will probably make an argument that they are vested in their project. However, the way the word “vested” is used in the Kittery decision, and in land use decisions both at the administrative level and court level, is that vesting applies to a permit. A permit, not a project, is what vests. Since Brooksville does not require any sort of permit for this work, I think that the vesting argument will be moot, and the developer will have to make a different argument.”
Blaine Hopkins, representing Global Tower Assets—the company building the Town House Road tower—said his attorneys were not concerned about whether or not the moratorium was enacted because they felt it would not be applicable.
U.S. Cellular spokeswoman Kelly Cioe said her company had been following the stories about the ordinances in The Weekly Packet. However, she said, the company had not received any formal notice from the town about the matter, and offered no further comment.
How many towers does a town need; where should they be located?
These were some of the questions asked by Brooksville residents at an August 19 public hearing and at recent selectmen’s meetings.
U.S. Cellular’s answers to some of these questions have been provided by Cioe. When asked about towers from multiple companies serving the same area, she said, “Under the Federal Telecom Act, service by one carrier does not preclude another from working to improve its network in the same area, which actually spurs competition and offers Maine’s customers better choices in terms of wireless carriers.”
In answer to a question about whether Brooksville would have been better served by several smaller towers spread around town, rather than the one very conspicuous tower placed on one of the prime ridges, the reply from U.S. Cellular was that the site was chosen “as the best option to fill a gap in wireless network coverage” using the limited amount of funds available under the federal Universal Service Fund program.
According to U.S. Cellular, several smaller, less conspicuous, towers would be “significantly more expensive and an inefficient use of Universal Service Funds.” Cioe said three towers instead of this one off Ferry Road could cost $1.5 million, which could be better spent in other areas that lack coverage.
When it began work on the Ferry Road tower, U.S. Cellular was not aware of the 190-foot tower planned for the Town House Road by Global Tower Partners/AT&T. Cioe said her company was not ready to comment on whether the tower was duplicative, but noted there was space on the Ferry Road tower for up to four additional carriers.
Global Towers’ Hopkins said that in his view the two towers were “very complementary” to each other.
A look at the maps showing the projected coverage areas for the two towers supports this view. The map for the 250-foot Ferry Road tower (U.S. Cellular) shows good coverage in the northerly and westerly portions of Brooksville and similar coverage in adjacent portions of Castine and Penobscot across the Bagaduce River. Except for small portions of high ground, there is little or no signal from the Ferry Road tower to Cape Rosier, and in the southern portions of Brooksville extending easterly to Walker Pond.
AT&T’s map shows the coverage provided by the 190-foot Town House Road tower being developed by Global Towers and other towers in its system. This map shows good coverage of much of Brooksville, including Cape Rosier and areas toward Walker Pond.
Hopkins said GTP would soon be naming a second carrier that will be using its tower and that a third is “in the wings.”