Scarborough cell tower growth remains a tough sell

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SCARBOROUGH — Planning Board members and residents are still hesitant to adopt a zoning ordinance that would allow more cellular phone towers.

The Town Council held a workshop Wednesday with two members of the Planning Board to discuss Town Planner Dan Bacon’s proposed tweaks to the ordinance, which would permit wireless towers in densely populated rural farming and residential zones.

Bacon and the ordinance committee have been working for the past year to address the issue of poor wireless coverage in town, which is seen as a safety issue and an impediment to economic development.

A consultation completed in April found town coverage was poorest in areas along the coast and west of the Maine Turnpike, and most of the six existing wireless towers are not feasible for additional equipment.

From their findings, Bacon suggested amending the town’s zoning to permit new wireless towers in more than just industrial zones. The changes would also allow taller towers, up to 150 feet rather than 100 feet, and smaller, “stealth” towers, or disguised wireless facilities mounted on buildings.

In the workshop Wednesday, Bacon presented several additions to the ordinance, including a four-tiered review process before approval to build an entirely new tower.

Applicants would have prove they cannot co-locate their equipment on an existing tower, locate their tower in an industrial zone, or use “stealth” wireless facilities before they could get approval to build a tower in a residential zone. 

Bacon also proposed requiring monopole towers to minimize visual impact, and requiring a guarantee that providers remove abandoned towers. 

Many residents oppose the zoning in residential areas because they believe the towers would disrupt scenic views, reduce property values and possibly be a health hazard.

Residents were especially concerned about the study’s suggestion of 11 possible tower locations that could serve deficient areas of town. Those areas include town land near Wiley Field, the sanitary facility near the marsh on Black Point Road, town land behind Blue Point Primary School, and land next to Beech Ridge Motor Speedway on Holmes Road.

Town Manager Tom Hall has said there are no plans to put towers in those areas.

On Wednesday, concerned residents remained firm in their belief that the town should not change zoning to allow towers in any residential zones. They said the town’s hands would be tied if a wireless company were to sue over a rejected tower application.

“Once you open it up completely, you’ve let the cat out of the bag,” Sue Foley-Ferguson, of Black Point Road, said. 

Councilors gave preliminary approval to the zoning changes in their meeting June 4. But since then, both the Planning Board and Town Council have become increasingly concerned the ordinance is too broad and allows towers in zones that are too densely populated. 

Although councilors agreed to consider Bacon’s proposed changes, board members and councilors on Wednesday still had more questions than answers.

“The more I’ve delved into this, the more concerns I’ve had,” Councilor Kate St. Clair, chairwoman of the ordinance committee, said.

“I feel very strongly about not having these towers near any homes or schools,” she added.

The ordinance committee will take up the zoning changes in their meeting Sept. 17 at 1 p.m. 

Following that, final action on the new zoning will be taken by the Town Council on Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. St. Clair said the council may table the item to further tweak the ordinance.  

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.

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