SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Planning Board Chair Mike Magnani doubts anybody knew what a cell tower was when the town’s land use ordinance was written. But “here we are now,” he said at the board’s April 26 hearing on a proposed new tower.
“As my grandfather used to say, that’s where the donkey fell. Now, we deal with it.”
After finding that the application by Vertical Bridge Holdings for a 195-foot transmission tower to be built on Freeman Ridge Road was in compliance with the town’s land use ordinance, the Planning Board approved it.
Magnani said the board was “almost blindsided” with people’s objections to the project.
“This is the ninth hour here, and everybody’s coming up with issues. If we had known this in the beginning, if there would have been more of an input in the beginning, we would have at least had a little more discussion on this.”
The Planning Board first discussed the tower last October, where the application was found to be complete except for three issues that were carried over for the board’s review on April 26.
The applicant was required to present a parking plan and an erosion and sediment control plan, and prove legal standing in the project.
The $300,000 self-supported structure will be built on property owned by Kenneth Hutchins. It will stand about 200 feet from the only other tower in town. The lease with Hutchins was included in the updated proposal, which Code Enforcement Officer Don Lagrange said was sufficient documentation to establish legal standing. According to Hutchins, the five-year lease can be renewed up to nine times.
The updated proposal also provided a plan for erosion and sediment control and depicted two parking areas. Lagrange said that, while the ordinance doesn’t specify how many parking spaces are required for this particular use, he found an item in that section of the ordinance that required one slot per employee.
Lindsay Beckwith, a site acquisition specialist who was at the meeting on behalf of Vertical Bridge, said that once construction is completed, there will not be more than two cars on-site.
Residents who were at the meeting raised concerned about disturbances that could have an impact on their quality of life or the value of their property.
Jim Snow, who lives near the proposed tower site, said that people tried to voice their concerns earlier, but the Board of Selectmen “refused to have a conversation.”
One resident who lives on Freeman Ridge asked whether lights will be installed on the tower. After discussion among the board members, Lagrange concluded that warning lights are subject to federal standards and are outside the town’s jurisdiction.
A resident who lives close to the current tower complained about noise from workers sent by the companies that lease the tower.
“I’m in my driveway, I’m 1,100 feet away from them, and I can hear them as though they were standing right next to me,” he said.
Magnani then confirmed with Beckwith that work on the tower would be done during the day and not at night.
Bonnie Boisvert, another neighbor, said that on several occasions she has had to remove industrial debris that was left behind in a residential setting. Lagrange then recommended that when moving to approve the tower, the board members emphasize that the company “must maintain a clean work zone,” which the members accepted.
John Kelly from the National Park Service and Stephanie Clement from Friends of Acadia both said they recognize the benefits of having additional cell coverage to the island’s communities.
“At the same time, we have concerns impacting scenic views to the park and from the park,” Kelly said. The park has been involved with seven other towers on the island over the past 10 years, he said, but all of them were 125 feet or less. Three of them were camouflaged as trees.
Kelly asked Beckwith whether any buildings are planned for the site. Beckwith said the concrete slabs displayed in the plan are for equipment platforms. She added that there were no buildings planned for the site unless a carrier proposed it, in which case they’d have to go through the Planning Board’s building permit process.
“From experience on the island, I can almost guarantee that there will be buildings on the site,” Kelly said. He asked whether the tower was being considered under the “essential services” section of the ordinance.
“It seems like it’s parsing the ordinance to say, well, we’ll ask for the tower now and come back to ask for the buildings later, when the essential services definition is saying you can have all these towers but you’re not putting up buildings,” Kelly said.
Magnani said that the board was only approving the tower not any potential buildings. But if a building request for the site eventually is made and it conforms with the town’s land use ordinance, “there’s not much we can do. I mean, it’s their property. We can’t control what somebody does with their property.”
Clement said that by disregarding the future buildings that may go on the site, it seemed like the board wasn’t considering the complete nature of the application.
She too flagged concerns regarding visual impact. She asked the board either to determine whether the applicant has proven minimal visual impact, as the ordinance requires for essential services, or that they make it a condition of the permit.
“Unlike other towers which are a bit closer to tree line, this one, being 195 feet on top of Freeman Ridge, is going to have a dramatic impact for users of the park,” Clement said.
While the board didn’t respond to Clement’s request for a visual analysis, Magnani said that “over 50 percent of Southwest Harbor is Acadia National Park. If we start making exceptions to everything in the remaining land that we have, we may as well turn it all into a national park. There are people who live here. I’d like to think that we represent everybody, not a select few.”
Snow asked the board whether the tower has a coverage requirement in case anything were to topple it over.
“If something happened that came down, how do we protect the houses that are around it?”
Lagrange said that since the town doesn’t have a cell tower ordinance, a fall-zone limitation doesn’t exist for the application. But Beckwith mentioned that a fall letter was included in the application “basically saying that it’ll be fine.”
Members of the board decided that the protests to the tower were “subjective opinions.”
“Our land use ordinance is an objective statement that gives us specific rules and regulations,” Magnani said. “We can’t start to decide what’s attractive to one person or what may be essential to somebody else.”