SCARBOROUGH — Zoning changes that would have allowed cellular phone towers in some residential areas were sent back to the drawing board at the Town Council meeting Wednesday.
With Councilor James Benedict absent, town councilors heeded resident and Planning Board recommendations to send the wide-reaching proposal back to the ordinance committee to better protect residential neighborhoods.
The town has suffered from poor wireless coverage, particularly in areas on the coast and west of the Maine Turnpike.
Town Planner Dan Bacon and the ordinance committee have been working for the past year to address the issue, and after analyzing coverage gaps, Bacon suggested amending the town’s zoning to permit new wireless towers in more than just industrial zones.
The changes would also permit taller towers, up to 150 feet rather than 100 feet, and allow for smaller, “stealth” towers, or disguised wireless facilities mounted on buildings.
Councilors gave preliminary approval to those zoning changes in their meeting June 4.
Of the 15 residents who spoke on the issue Wednesday, all conceded the town could use improved coverage. But most were more concerned about the uncertain health and safety risks of proximity to cell towers and jeopardizing property values, and pleaded with councilors to give the zone changes another look.
Elisa Boxer-Cook, of Minuteman Drive, said she collected 100 signatures on a petition against the proposal, and said she fears the “overwhelming blanket” zoning would allow for cellular towers in her neighbors’ backyards.
In addition to two attorneys for wireless companies, only Donald Day, of Fairway Drive, expressed support for the changes, on the grounds that inadequate cellular service is also a safety issue. He said he frequently loses calls driving on Black Point Road.
“What happens on an icy night, when I slide into the marsh?” he asked the council. “I’d like to be able to use my cell phone.”
Councilors took no action on the proposed zoning for cellular towers, but agreed with both sides.
Although Councilor Jessica Holbrook, who lives west of the Maine Turnpike, said she was one of those “doing the happy dance” when she heard the ordinance committee was taking up poor coverage, she felt the committee could find solutions that would make residents more comfortable.
“There is a significant problem for a good chunk of the community,” she said.
The committee will consider narrowing the scope of wireless tower zoning in a meeting Aug. 13. The Town Council will then take it up again on Aug. 20.
In other business, councilors granted more than $40,000 in tax abatements for years 2011 and 2012 to Marc Terfloth, of Sanctuary Lane, after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court sided with him against the town’s Board of Assessment Review.
Councilors unanimously agreed to a settlement agreement with no discussion Wednesday night, but discussed in executive session the possible ramifications of the court decision on two other pending 2012 tax abatement cases with multiple appellants in Maine Superior Court.
If the ongoing lawsuits are successful, town officials have said the refunds could cost the town more than half a million dollars.