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Topsham Planning Board rejects cell tower proposal

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Topsham Planning Board rejects cell tower proposal

TOPSHAM — The Planning Board on Tuesday unanimously rejected construction of a cellular communications tower in the Heights neighborhood.

The decision prompted cheers from the audience, composed largely of Heights residents, who have packed every board meeting to oppose the project.

“We’re very happy with the decision,” said Phin White of Bridge Street, who helped gather 606 signatures on a petition calling for all cell towers to be barred from Topsham’s Residential 1 zone, where Mariner Tower had proposed to build a 75-foot facility for use by T-Mobile at 14 Oak St.

White said 434 signatures were required, and that the petition was submitted to Town Clerk Ruth Lyons earlier on Tuesday. The cell-tower ban could ultimately go to a Town Meeting vote.

Heights residents like White have argued that a cell tower is inappropriate for a dense neighborhood like theirs. But such structures are allowed as a conditional use, a hurdle of approval that Mariner had to jump before the Planning Board could dive into site plan and transmission tower reviews.

With a rejection at the conditional level, the other decisions become moot.

“We’re disappointed,” Chris Ciolfi, Mariner’s chief development officer, said after the meeting. “The town has an ordinance and standard that they print and ask us to follow, and we believe we followed it.”

Ciolfi added that “we’ll have to consider our options.”

Town Planner Rich Roedner said Mariner could appeal the Planning Board’s decision at the Board of Appeals, or return to the Planning Board with a revised plan that might better address the conditional use standards.

Among those standards are whether the proposed use is compatible with general uses of neighboring properties. Planning Board members argued that the use was not compatible, since nearby uses range from a 49-foot water tower to residences no more than 35 feet tall. The property owners, Clifford and Pauline Farr, would not guarantee that the area outside Mariner’s leased area would remain in its existing vegetative condition, the board also noted.

Another standard stipulates that the use must be compatible with the Comprehensive Plan and anticipated development in the neighborhood. The plan calls for development to be a tool to improve the “integrity and character” of the town’s residential areas, but the board noted that a cell tower would harm the integrity of the neighborhood by bringing in a use that would overshadow existing homes in scale and in “feel.”

Mariner’s application did meet other conditional use standards. The Planning Board deemed the use would have no adverse impacts in terms of traffic, noise, odor, dust or vibrations. The board also determined that the use would not create a nuisance.

Tuesday’s decision followed three Planning Board meetings on the proposal in the past year. Most recently, on May 4, the board postponed further discussion after learning that day about revisions proposed by the applicant. Those changes called for the tower compound to be reduced from 4,900 square feet to 2,800 square feet, which would have pulled both the compound and its entry road back from homes on Maple Street and minimized the area to be cleared.

Since he has family that lives in the neighborhood involved in Mariner's proposal, Planning Board member Ron Bisson recused himself from Tuesday's discussion.

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