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Topsham Planning Board again tables cell tower proposal; petition challenges project

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Topsham Planning Board again tables cell tower proposal; petition challenges project

TOPSHAM — For the third time in nearly a year, the Planning Board on Tuesday tabled a proposal to build a cellular communications tower in the Heights neighborhood.

Opponents of the tower have also started circulating petitions to block the project and others like it.

Tuesday's meeting followed a site walk of the proposed tower location at 14 Oak St., where planners were told that applicant Mariner Tower had revised its plan to address some concerns expressed at previous meetings.

The company proposed a smaller area for the tower compound on the lot, from 4,900 square feet to 2,800 square feet. The change would pull both the compound its entry road back from homes on Maple Street.

“The applicant showed that (change) as a way of preserving additional landscaping that would not be cleared, so the cleared area would be minimized,” Town Planner Rich Roedner said.

Still, Planning Board members expressed discomfort at reviewing a plan that had just been revised.

“You’re coming here tonight, in my mind, with an unfinished plan,” board member Steve Mathieu said. “And I’m not inclined myself to spend time reviewing an unfinished plan.”

Cell towers are currently allowed in Topsham’s Residential 1 zone as a conditional use. Mathieu said the appearance of the site around the tower will be directly related to how he votes on conditional use.

Chris Ciolfi, Mariner’s chief development officer, told the board he thinks the plan meets the town’s conditional use standards. Having heard input in past meetings, he said, “we do not believe we have a static plan. We are trying to make the best project we possibly can. And we are continually trying to improve on that project.”

While Mathieu said he understood that the applicant was trying to accommodate the town, “we have to approve a plan … we have to have a mapped plan that shows where’s the compound, where’s the (entry) road, and be able to make good decisions for our town on what the impact is and whether it meets our standards or not. And you haven’t given us the tools to do that tonight.”

Mariner, which is proposing a 75-foot tower for use by T-Mobile, must submit its application materials to Topsham’s planning office by June 8 to be on the agenda for the Planning Board’s June 29 meeting. The board tabled the application until then.

The board’s decision to table the matter again raised the ire of several audience members.

Phin White of Bridge Street noted after the meeting that “if you came to your professor, to your class, and you had to give a presentation and you weren’t prepared, you’d get an F. So this is (the applicant’s) third F. And I suspect their goal is to come back with an A next time, and it’s as if they’ve been handed that opportunity once again, but we’ll just have to see what happens at the next meeting.”

Meanwhile, neighbors are circulating a petition to bar cell towers from Topsham’s Residential 1 zone, retroactive to April 1. White, one of the petitioners, said any permit application that is pending with or issued by the Planning Board on or following that date that does not conform would be null and void.

Roedner said the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has deemed retroactive ordinances to be legal, but “I have no idea whether the way this petition is worded is appropriate or not.”

The petitioners must gather 434 signatures and return them to the Town Clerk’s office; White said on Tuesday that about half the necessary signatures have been gathered. He said there is no set date for returning the signed petitions, but that he would like to submit them in the next few weeks, and that the item would ultimately go before voters at Town Meeting.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.