Controversial cell tower proposal returns to Topsham Planning Board

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TOPSHAM — The Planning Board is scheduled on Tuesday, March 16, to again consider a site plan review application for a cellular communications tower in the Heights neighborhood.

Mariner Tower approached the board last June about building the 103-foot monopole for use by T-Mobile. The application produced a packed meeting room, with many residents speaking in opposition. After nearly three hours of discussion, the board voted to continue the hearing while it sought clarity on the need for another cell tower in town.

If the board approves the project, the tower would be built off Oak Street on land leased from Clifford and Pauline Farr.

Chris Ciolfi, Mariner’s chief development officer, said in January that while the tower would be designed to reach an overall height of 103 feet, his company will ask the Planning Board next week to approve a height of 75 feet – the maximum allowed for a tower with only one carrier. If an additional carrier commits, Mariner could return to the board to request an extension to 103 feet.

While Towers North had expressed interest in being a second carrier, the company opted out because of economic conditions, Vice President David Libby said last week.

“We’ve just cut back our expansion plans,” he said.

Ciolfi noted that many factors go into determining whether a cell tower is needed.

“There are customers, and (Federal Communications Commission) requirements, and quality of service,” he explained. “… T-Mobile has established a standard, and they’re trying to build their network to that standard.”

Ciolfi added that Mariner is “not looking for any variances or special compensation. We’re in a zone where it’s an allowed use, we’re below the height that’s allowed, we more than meet all the setback requirements. This is a very, very compliant application.”

Ciolfi said he also has Federal Aviation Administration clearance and a response from a state historic preservation officer indicating that the project is in compliance and that it would create no adverse impact on historic properties.

But some residents see a tower as a blight in their neighborhood.

“I think the main reason that residents are opposed to the tower is that this is the first cell tower in Topsham that is proposed for a residential neighborhood,” Regina Leonard, a landscape architect who lives on Bridge Street, said last July. “And Topsham Heights is one of the town’s oldest neighborhoods, and it’s also one of the densest neighborhoods. And so our concern is that this development isn’t appropriate for a dense residential neighborhood.”

Leonard noted that with commercial and industrial uses just a mile away from the Heights, the town could work with the applicant to find a more appropriate location.

Challenges of review

Topsham Town Planner Rich Roedner said in January that “cell towers are difficult things for local boards to review, largely because the federal government has pre-empted an awful lot of the authority that towns have.”

He said town boards “can review the visual impact, the specific neighborhood impacts, but they can’t make a determination that ‘we don’t want cell towers,’ or ‘we only want them (in a specific part of town).’”

Roedner noted that the town is allowed to view the applicant’s determination of need.

Topsham has about half a dozen cell towers, but none in the built-up part of town, the planner said. He said Mariner must demonstrate why it needs a new tower and cannot use an existing structure.

Need for speed, capacity

The evolving nature and growing use of cellular communications play a part in Mariner’s proposal.

Stronger signals are needed to reach inside buildings and compete with land lines, and newer cell phone features, including text messaging and Internet connectivity, require more capacity than providers have needed in the past, Roedner said.

Ciolfi said that while companies like AT&T and Verizon can use an approximately 800-megahertz frequency, T-Mobile uses 1,900 megahertz, which travels a shorter distance. As a result, Ciolfi said, T-Mobile requires more towers.

Leonard argued, though, that more towers simply mean more money for Ciolfi’s company.

“The stated purpose of (Mariner Tower) is to build towers,” she said. “So that’s what they’re in business to do, and they’re the applicant. So the question is, are they going to fairly assess opportunities for co-locating on existing structures? No, because they’re making money when a tower is built.”

Leonard said there have not been cell phone coverage problems in the Heights area.

Third-party review

Because Planning Board members questioned the data they received in June in support of Mariner’s need for a new tower, Roedner said, “the board has really wanted some concrete evidence from them (to) demonstrate the need.”

The board hired Mark Hutchins, a Vermont radio frequency consultant. Hutchins stated in his March 8 report that other T-Mobile cell antennas “are too distant to provide relief to an inadequate coverage area roughly bordered by the Androscoggin River, Main Street, Lewiston Road and Interstate 95. Due to the location of existing cells, there is not much latitude in placement of antennas, given the balance required between adequate vegetative clearance and avoiding interference with the neighboring cells.”

Hutchins continued that the combination of T-Mobile predictive modeling, independent prediction and call-data analysis has concluded “that the area in question does not have adequate coverage. … The proposed facility meets the Town height limitation for a single-provider tower, and appears to be a height and location that will provide adequate coverage while interconnecting satisfactorily with T-Mobile neighboring cells.”

Along with the visual impact of the monopole, the Planning Board must consider the noise level from the tower’s adjacent utility building, Roedner said. The town has established a maximum daytime continuous level of 55 decibels at the property line for any structure, dropping to 45 decibels at night.

The tower’s visibility is also an issue.

Seeing the top 5 feet of the tower above the trees would likely not be a violation, he said. However, seeing 95 feet of the total structure could very well constitute a significant adverse visual impact. Another factor is whether a tower would affect one neighbor or many.

“That’s something that the board will have to decide,” Roedner said. “You as a single homeowner … can see the whole tower. (That’s a) significant adverse visual impact to you. Is that enough to deny the project? … If 30 neighbors are affected that way, it’s much easier to say there’s a significant adverse visual impact. And maybe one’s enough. It’s not something that the board has had to deal with in the past, because it’s never been an issue in the past.”

Bridge Street resident Phin White said the tower would reach about 30 to 40 feet above the tree line, but noted that trees there could be cut, which would increase the visual impact.

Leonard expressed concern that “if the Planning Board doesn’t apply what they could apply in determining impact for this neighborhood, and they allow this cell tower in, it opens the door for more cell towers in our neighborhood, and in other residential neighborhoods.”

The March 16 Planning Board meeting will begin at the Topsham Municipal Building at 7 p.m. A site walk for a cell tower at 603 River Road will take place one hour prior in order to show people the sounds generated by such a structure.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or

Sidebar Elements

Topsham Heights residents, who oppose a cell tower in their neighborhood, gathered near the Swinging Bridge last summer. The bridge is one area from which the proposed tower would be visible. The matter is scheduled to go before the Topsham Planning Board on Tuesday, March 16.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.