Planning Board needs more time to consider Topsham cell tower plan

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TOPSHAM — After 3 1/2 hours of discussion and comment Tuesday, the Planning Board decided to wait until at least May 4 before making a decision about a cellular communications tower proposed for the Heights neighborhood.

The meeting room at the Municipal Building was packed, with many residents opposed to the tower.

Mariner Tower must receive conditional use and site plan approval to build the 75-foot tower off Oak Street, on land leased from Clifford and Pauline Farr. That height is the maximum allowed for a tower with a single carrier – in this case, T-Mobile.

Board members asked for more information on issues such as drainage, why existing towers in town are not appropriate, and the need for the tower based on its 75-foot configuration versus an earlier 103-foot proposal.

The board will also schedule a site walk; Town Planner Rich Roedner said it would be held either May 4 or earlier.

Chris Ciolfi, Mariner’s chief development officer, has said he is not seeking variances or special compensation, and that the tower would be built in a zone where it is an allowed use, below the maximum height allowed for such a structure with other carriers, and that his company meets all the setback requirements.

He has also said he has clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, and word from a state historic preservation officer that indicates the project is in compliance and would create no adverse impact on historic properties.

Ciolfi said the tower would have a dull gray finish in order to blend best with all weather conditions.

With cellular communications continuing to grow in usage and evolve in nature, cell phone service providers have expressed a need for stronger signals to reach inside buildings and compete with land lines. While some companies can use an approximately 800-megahertz frequency, T-Mobile uses 1,900 megahertz, which travels a shorter distance, Ciolfi said, noting that T-Mobile consequently requires more towers.

Attorney Brian Grossman, representing T-Mobile, said the tower would be intended to address a lack of coverage in the area between Routes 196 and 201 and Interstate 295. He said about 33 percent of Topsham’s population is in the overall coverage footprint, and that the new coverage would include about 20 percent of the population.

Year after year, the FCC is seeing “the increase of wireless-only homes versus the decrease of those that have land lines,” Grossman said. “And so that need, to provide the coverage to users where we find them, and where they expect and want and need to be able to use their devices, coupled with the network statistics that we’ve provided, coupled with the population statistics for this area … tell our radiofrequency engineers one thing: this is an area of critical importance to T-Mobile’s network.”

Mark Hutchins, a Vermont radio frequency consultant the board hired to review the case, said that based on mapping, traffic data and his own measurements, “there seems to be a need (for the tower) … There is a problem, not consistently, but a fairly high percentage of problems connecting to the network for T-Mobile customers.”

Hutchins said he could not determine whether the problems are more common with vehicle- or home-based customers.

At the start of the public comment portion of the meeting, people in favor of the proposal were offered the chance to state their case first. No one went to the podium. The opposition, though, then formed a line to the lectern.

Jeff Deletetsky called the Heights neighborhood historic and unique, noting that “presently, the only thing that looks galvanized is the Swinging Bridge.” The bridge was built in 1892.

He said he has been a T-Mobile customer for eight years and has not had one dropped call in that area, echoing another speaker who said the existing service is sufficient and that a tower in the Heights is unwarranted.

Deletetsky noted that town codes call for the protection and preservation of rural and historic visual quality in town. “How is this tower doing that?,” he asked.

Theodora Penny Martin said she would never have bought her Garnet Drive home if she had “any inkling that a cell phone tower might be situated within sight and sound … of my home. I will move out of Topsham as soon as possible if the cell phone tower is built in the proposed area – and lose money in the process as the value of my home will have decreased substantially.”

She said that while the federal government has not issued warnings about cell towers, “an increasing number of studies bring the issue into question.”

“It should be noted that those who use cell phone handsets are engaged in voluntary exposure, even though handset safety also remains unresolved,” Martin said. “But those who live near towers are being forced into involuntary exposure.”

Fellow Garnet Drive resident Ed Webster held up a drawing by his 7-year-old daughter, depicting children playing in green grass while a black cell tower looms over them. Like Martin, he said he would be forced to move if the tower is erected.

“The reason that we live in Maine, why we love Maine, is the beauty of nature,” Webster said. “… This is the way life is supposed to be, without cell phone towers dominating the hillside right above your house. This is why a lot of us left Boston, and left Massachusetts, was to find a closer proximity to nature.”

Near adjournment of the meeting, Planning Board member Stephen Mathieu noted the importance of the public’s input, particularly at the conditional use level. He pointed out, though, that the board must conduct a technical review of Mariner’s application against Topsham’s zoning.

“If it meets the codes, it’s going to get approved,” he said. “If it doesn’t, it won’t.”

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

Sidebar Elements

At the March 16 Topsham Planning Board meeting, Ed Webster holds a drawing by his 7-year-old daughter depicting children playing in green grass with a black cell tower standing in the middle. He said he will be forced to move if a cell tower is built in the town’s Heights neighborhood.

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.