Editorial: Out of our hands

A 195-foot communications tower for Freeman Ridge in Southwest Harbor, first proposed in late 2017, was approved by the town’s Planning Board last May. But it’s not yet a done deal.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must license the equipment on the tower before it will be built. The FCC has a mandate to limit impact on historic properties and sites. Acadia’s trail system is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A visual impact test, floating a series of balloons to the height of the proposed tower at the planned location, is standard practice as part of the approval process for cell towers in other towns. But in this case, it had to be specially requested by the FCC and the National Park Service, months after the developer had the town’s approval in hand.

That’s because Southwest Harbor has not regulated communications towers in its land use ordinance, as the other towns on Mount Desert Island have. Those zoning restrictions include a maximum height (120 feet) and require visual impact assessments. Developers must also include an analysis of structures in the fall zone if the tower topples. In Southwest Harbor, the affected property owners must rely on the good faith of the developer as expressed in a letter included in the application.

Cellular phone service is now pretty good in most places on MDI. Emergency services continue to work together and with Acadia National Park to improve radio communication abilities. Perhaps this tower would be a game-changer in that respect. But because of the rules this project is operating under, that’s not the debate that’s happening.

It’s a shame that the decision will likely be made on technicalities (such as whether the “Area of Potential Impact,” as far as the FCC is concerned, is a half-mile radius, a four-mile radius, or something else). Local rules do a better job of protecting local interests. But as it is, there’s not much that local officials can do. However this current kerfluffle plays out, it would be a good idea for the town to start work on its own set of cell tower restrictions.

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