SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Acadia National Park is known for its great views of Maine’s bare granite mountains and spruce-fir forests. Soon, visitors might also spot a 195-foot cell tower in the landscape.
Florida-based Vertical Bridge Holdings has submitted an application to build a communication tower on Freeman Ridge Road. If it were to be built, the tower would be the tallest on Mount Desert Island. It would be the second tower in Southwest Harbor.
The Federal Communications Commission is inviting residents to review and request further environmental processing of the application, and the town’s Planning Board will hold a hearing on April 26.
The structure would be built northeast of Buttermilk Brook Road on property owned by Kenneth Hutchins, about 200 feet from the older tower. While the company would lease the property from Hutchins, the town must confirm that the project meets the requirements of the town’s land use ordinance.
According to the FCC, the lattice tower would be a standalone, self-supported structure. Related accessories could bring the total height to 199 feet.
Southwest Harbor is the only town on Mount Desert Island that hasn’t adopted height restrictions on transmission towers, based on a land use ordinance passed in 1988, according to Town Manager Don Lagrange. Bar Harbor, Tremont and Mount Desert each have set a maximum height of 125 feet.
The National Park Service is working with the applicant to assess the visual impact the tower could have on scenic views from Acadia National Park and whether it would affect the enjoyment of the hiking trails there, said park Management Assistant John Kelly.
Friends of Acadia is “supportive of the National Park Service’s additional review of the scenic assessment in the area,” said Conservation Director Stephanie Clement.
Because the tower will be built on a ridgeline, she added, there’s concern that it will be visible from a number of park trails.
For previous cell tower installations, companies have floated balloons in place of the potential structure to see what it would look like. It helped provide context to local residents and organizations, said Clement.
Another concern is the potential to integrate the tower’s appearance with the area’s natural scenery. A common strategy is disguising towers as trees, according to Kelly.
In Mount Desert and Bar Harbor, the planning boards “have the option of imposing camouflage requirements” when reviewing applications for towers, he said.
Clement said the tower could also have an environmental impact on the declining bat population in the area.
This is the second cell tower application that Vertical Bridge Holdings has submitted before the Planning Board in Southwest Harbor. The original request was reviewed last winter, but it was incomplete, said Planning Board Chair Lee Worcester.
The land use ordinance requires that the development include two parking spaces for the project, which were missing from the company’s original plan, according to Lagrange. Also, Vertical Bridge previously couldn’t prove legal standing in the project, but Lagrange said that the company has since signed a lease with the property owner and submitted it to the town.
The current application is still missing some information; the results of the Federal Aviation Administration study, which is an FCC requirement, are absent from the online document.
The purpose of the tower also is unknown but is not a federal reporting requirement. According to the FCC, the tower might not be used for cell service. Even if it were, it would only impact customers of cell phone companies that would place their antennas on the tower. The structure’s height may mean a wider area is able to have reception, but the signal will not necessarily be better or stronger.
Vertical Bridge Holdings claims to be “the largest private owner and manager of communication infrastructure in the U.S,” according to their website. The Islander contacted the company with questions regarding the tower, but a spokesperson said the company “can’t provide information.”
Through the FCC, residents can submit more qualitative commentary on the impact of the tower, because the commission is obliged to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.
Residents also can share their thoughts on the tower at the Planning Board’s meeting next month, but the process there is stricter, as any comment would have to apply directly to conditions specified in the land use ordinance.
One concern Clement said she will raise at the April meeting is whether the town can request lifetime deconstruction of the structure, so that if the technology advances or if tower is no longer needed, the town could call on the company to take it down.
“When you build something like this, it changes the landscape forever,” she said.