AT&T wins right to build Hio Ridge cell tower

DECIDING FACTOR — Radio Frequency Engineer Ivan Pagacik provided the key testimony Tuesday to back up AT&T’s application for a cell phone tower at 214 Hio Ridge Road in Bridgton.

DECIDING FACTOR — Radio Frequency Engineer Ivan Pagacik provided the key testimony Tuesday to back up AT&T’s application for a cell phone tower at 214 Hio Ridge Road in Bridgton.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Despite five months’ worth of vigorous opposition by Hio Ridge Road residents, the Bridgton Planning Board ruled Tuesday in favor of a request by AT&T and American Towers to build a 130-foot cell phone tower at 214 Hio Ridge Road.

The ruling came nearly three hours after key testimony was heard by radio frequency engineer Ivan Pagacik, an independent consultant hired by the town to verify that AT&T had demonstrated the need for the new tower to meet its coverage needs. AT&T has antennas on Shawnee Peak and in other Bridgton locations, but there still exists “significant gaps in coverage” on Route 302 north and adjoining roads, Pagacik said.

Pagacik told the board he saw no flaw in AT&T’s coverage analysis, and noted that the new tower will provide 4G coverage for increased data speeds of up to 1,900 megahertz — more than twice the 800-megahertz range of cell towers built 25 years ago. The higher range signals are more apt to suffer signal loss from trees and foliage than the lower range, he said.

“This is the next layer of buildout that’s coming” as cell phone providers compete to meet demand of smart phone users, Pagacik said. “They started in Boston, and are moving their way up.”

The drawback to this demand for higher frequencies, he said, is that cell phone companies need more towers. “The faster you want to push data, the more sites you need.”

Pagacik agreed with testimony at an earlier meeting by AT&T RF Engineer Ernesto Chua, who said a nearby existing cell tower on Sam Ingalls Road was not suitable because it was not high enough for the signal to reach the target area on Route 302. The tower would have to be 295 feet high to provide a suitable signal, Pagacik said.

Sliver of a sliver?

Pagacik’s testimony was followed by one last attempt by Hio Ridge Road resident Paul Veit to prove his contention that the Sam Ingalls Road tower was suitable for co-location by AT&T. Veit came armed with a PowerPoint presentation that was allowed into the record by Planning Board Chairman Steve Collins, over the objection of attorney Barry Hobbins, representing AT&T and American Towers.

Veit said AT&T originally said coverage needed to be improved westerly on Route 302, but that Pagacik’s review did not take that into account.

“The coverage we asked for was a comparison of the Sam Ingalls site with the Hio Ridge site westerly,” Veit said. If that had been done, he said, the analysis would have shown where the signal from the Hio Ridge Road site would be obstructed by Pleasant Mountain, and the only area that the signal from Hio Ridge Road would be better was “a sliver of a sliver” on Route 302 easterly of Hio Ridge.

“A sliver of a sliver,” Veit repeated. “One square mile or less. You could walk it. It only has two houses on it,” Veit said. “Your sliver, sir, is so tiny it’s a little tiny box.”

Pagacik said he didn’t analyze coverage in any one direction; but that he looked at factors such as height above the average terrain, tree density, building density and construction, frequency and equipment performance specifications. “It’s basically where the coverage drops off,” he said. “I reviewed (Chua’s) report and ran the analysis, and it was not specific to any one area.”

Hobbins said he never talked with Pagacik, either by e-mail or phone, after he was hired by the town to do the RF analysis.

Veit said that AT&T “failed to even consider” co-location, a charge that Hobbins has denied, and that Chua also refuted in his presentation to the board.

Hobbins went over AT&T’s study of alternative sites, including six existing towers in town and four raw land candidates. He pointed out that American Towers owns two of the towers, and said, “If you think for one minute they would co-locate if they could, well…think about it.”

Hobbins also noted the importance of having a “ready, willing and able landlord” willing to lease land for the tower site. On Hio Ridge Road, AT&T found such a landlord in John Harmon and other family members who own the land at 214 Hio Ridge Road. “Many (landowners) do not want to rent their sites,” he said.

Veit’s wife, Judy Veit, made an emotional appeal to the board to consider the impact on the residential neighborhood, saying, “Is a sliver of a sliver worth ruining our neighborhood? Really? When there’s all this other coverage available? We are trusting the board to have our backs.”

Also showing emotion was Hio Ridge Road resident Pamela Kohring. She thanked the board for requiring such a thorough review, saying, “You’ve done way more than I expected.” But she told them “For most of us, living on scenic Hio Ridge Road was something we dreamed about for a long time. (The cell tower) feels like an intrusion.”

Code Enforcement Officer Robbie Baker said it will be his job to order the junkyard on the property to be cleaned up.

After the public hearing, the board was able to finally begin deliberations. It was the first time any of them had spoken publicly about the proposal. When it came time to decide whether the plan met the standard of not creating undue impact on the value or use of nearby residential properties, board member Dee Miller said, tongue in cheek, “I don’t want to think about it.”

Miller said it is very difficult to decide on something that is subjective in nature, and noted that the Federal Communications Commission has said that the value of homes is not applicable when reviewing telecommunication towers. “So we can’t use it,” she said.

But Mike Figoli said in his view “I think AT&T has met (the standard). I do not think (the cell tower is) going to be undue or excessive.” The vote on the undue impact standard was 3-1-1, with member Brian Thomas opposed and Miller abstaining.

Asked by Baker to state why she abstained, Miller said, “I can’t make up my mind. I don’t know what to say.”

Anne Krieg, director of economic, planning and community development, said an abstention is usually used when a member has a conflict. “It’s more about, did the applicant give you the information to make the call,” Krieg said.

Miller suggested, and the board agreed, to a condition that would limit the hours of construction of the tower to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., instead of 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. as allowed in the ordinance. She also suggested that the tower either be camouflaged by paint or built as a monopine to resemble a tree, but that motion died for lack of a second.

A second condition, also suggested by Miller and approved by the board, was to require that landscaping around the cell tower site be planted so as to minimize generator noise to surrounding residents. A sign stating that the access road is a private road was also added as a condition.

After then reviewing all 26 standards in the Site Plan Review Ordinance as they relate to the tower, member Fred Packard made a motion to grant tentative approval to the project, with conditions, and the motion passed 5-0.

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