Cape Elizabeth board: Water tower not fit for cellular use

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The Zoning Board of Appeals on Tuesday upheld decisions denying building permits needed by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobile to install cellular service antennas and related infrastructure on Avon Road.

Attorneys for the cell phone companies argued that a 69-year-old water tower near the end of the residential street fits a town ordinance definition of an “alternative tower structure” for cell service antennas.

But the ZBA found that the proposals failed to satisfy an ordinance requirement that the cell service equipment constitute a “subordinate use” of the structure.

Although the water tower already supports a Portland Water District antenna for monitoring sewer pumping stations, board members reasoned that cell service antennas and equipment sheds would render any other use of the property as secondary.

“It (would) become subordinate to a much more intensive use,” ZBA Secretary Joanna Tourangeau said. “In volume, intensity, in every aspect.”

The lack of a strategy for concealing the cell service infrastructure – and cloaking the equipment sheds, in particular – also influenced the board’s finding that the requests do not satisfy the town’s alternative tower structure statute.

In addition, the board rejected the appeals based on the federal Spectrum Act. It found that the companies failed to establish the water tower as an eligible “base station” and that, even if they had, the substantial changes they sought to make to the structure would have rendered the project ineligible under the act.

“The goal is to get adequate service coverage in Cape Elizabeth as soon as possible, and using existing structures, as possible, which is the whole purpose of this federal law,” said Scott Anderson, Verizon’s attorney. “Obviously, the next step from here is an appeal to state or federal court.”

Priscilla Armstrong, an Avon Road resident whose land abuts the water tower property, was one of dozens of citizens who attended the hearing to oppose the project proposed in the Shore Acres neighborhood. During the public hearing, she cited concerns about reduced property value, and increased noise and street traffic.

“I’m sure it’s not the end, but I’m glad the board voted the way they did,” Armstrong said after the meeting. “I think they were thoughtful about it, and I’m pleased with the way this evening went.”

The tower provided backup water storage, primarily for the Fire Department, for over 60 years; it was drained in 2007, when upgrades to the town’s pipe system rendered it obsolete. The antenna for communicating with sewer pump stations and the waste-water treatment facility has been in place since 1985.

Over the past few months, both Verizon and AT&T signed leases – meaningless for the time being – that would pay the Portland Water District upwards of $30,000 a year for as many as 25 years to erect antennas on the water tower.

The two cell phone corporations early this year submitted building permit applications to Code Enforcement Officer Ben McDougal. He denied both applications, and they appealed, setting up Tuesday’s hearing.

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.