Board orders study on alternative tower sites

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

The Bridgton Planning Board has ordered an independent analysis of a site evaluation study done by American Towers to back up its contention that an AT&T cell tower needs to be sited on Hio Ridge Road in order to fill a gap in its coverage.

“To me, this is the nub issue of the whole application,” Board Chairman Steve Collins said at Tuesday’s two-and-a-half-hour public hearing on the controversial tower application, which drew around 30 residents living nearby the proposed site at 214 Hio Ridge Road. The board backed his view, and voted to continue the public hearing to its next meeting.

The decision to require an independent analysis followed comments by tower opponent Paul Veit of 246 Hio Ridge Road, who vigorously challenged the site evaluation’s methodology and thoroughness, and accused AT&T and American Towers of having a legal partnership agreement stipulating that American Towers “will never co-locate with U.S. Cellular.”

The closest tower, at 119 Sam Ingalls Road, is owned by U.S. Cellular and is the only carrier on the tower.

Veit’s comments about a partnership agreement prompted a strong denial from Barry Hobbins, a lawyer from Saco representing the applicants.

“That is incorrect,” Hobbins said. “We are not going to compromise our FCC license” by refusing to co-locate with U.S. Cellular, he said.

Collins said an independent analysis was warranted in this case because “It has been suggested that there might be less than total objectivity” in the site evaluation study. Another factor, pointed out by resident Lega Metcalf, is that Craig Cody, the person who conducted the study, works for American Towers.

Hobbins indicted he would consider asking the applicant to site the tower further back from Hio Ridge Road, as additional acreage is owned by the lessee, John Harmon. He said the tower was sited closer to Hio Ridge Road in order to be closer to telephone and power lines.

Veit said pushing it back another couple of hundred feet would make a big difference to the closest abutter, George Gula, who just built a new home on Hio Ridge Road that is located very close to the tower’s fall zone.

Metcalf said she was speaking on behalf of residents living closest to the tower site in her belief that this tower proposal would indeed have an adverse impact on the Hio Ridge neighborhood, and therefore violated the town’s Tower Ordinance.

“Some things are unconscionable in a residential area,” Metcalf said. “It’s an unconscionable act to ram it down their throats. Why does it have to be in the middle of where lots of people are living?”

Collins answered that the board is bound to follow the standards set by the town’s Tower Ordinance, no more, no less, and that if the applicant meets those standards, the project must be approved.

“We don’t have a conscience, we have an ordinance,” Collins said. “I don’t like it, it makes me uncomfortable, but it’s not an argument” to say a project is unconscionable.

It was pointed out, however, that the Tower Ordinance begins by stating that part of its purpose is to “minimize the adverse impact of such facilities including visual impacts, environmental impacts, impacts to historically-significant areas, health and safety impacts and property value impacts.” The ordinance also states that co-location of users on existing towers should be encouraged to limit the need for additional towers, and that new towers should only be allowed in cases “only where all other reasonable opportunities have been exhausted.”

Alternative sites

Craig Cody, a site evaluator who works with American Towers, conducted the project analysis purporting to show that none of the existing towers in Bridgton were suitable for meeting AT&T’s goal of filling a coverage gap on Route 302. He said all of the other towers were outside the search range, and that the 150-foot-tall Sam Ingalls tower wasn’t suitable because the terrain would obstruct the signal from Route 302.

“Ideally we like to locate on an existing tower,” said Cody. “It’s not American Towers’ intent to piss off the community.”

Several of the residents scoffed at AT&T’s contention that the area has a “significant” gap in coverage, saying their cell phones consistently have a strong signal from their homes.

Veit said the application showed no evidence that the company communicated with Wayne Cadman, manager of the tower at 119 Sam Ingalls Road, about co-locating there. He also said that one of the sites investigated was virtually “across the street” from the Sam Ingalls Road tower.

Collins agreed with Veit that the independent analysis should include consideration of whether AT&T could co-locate on the Sam Ingalls tower if its height were increased.

Visual impact

Hobbins passed out photos showing the results of a second balloon test conducted on May 3, after the initial test on April 18 was said to be inconclusive because of wind conditions.

Hobbins said the balloon flew at the proposed tower’s 130-foot height from around 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and that ballast was used to ensure the balloon reached full extension. Nevertheless, several residents said they spent considerable time searching for the balloon but couldn’t see it, and Veit said the lack of accompanying text made the visual impact analysis incomplete. “The neighbors completely reject this as being a proper impact analysis,” Veit said.

Ironically, said Hobbins, the balloon was visible from the Bridgton Highlands Golf Resort quite a bit further away. “The reality is that someone is going to see a 130-foot monopole,” Hobbins said. He added that the pole could be painted above the tree line to minimize its visibility.

It was stated by one audience member that there are around 50 property owners within the radius of the proposed tower.

Hobbins said that each additional tower user wishing to co-locate will be required to come back to the board with their own request, and that they would likely locate their antennae below AT&T’s antennae near the top of the pole.

Veit, however, pointed out that under the ordinance, each additional user may seek to add another 25 feet in height to the tower, so that the Hio Ridge tower could possibly reach a maximum height of 200 feet, as is the case with several of the other existing towers in Bridgton.

Radiation effects

Hobbins said cell phone and wireless towers are part of everyday life now, in such common areas as malls and atop many buildings in urban centers such as Boston and Portland. He pointed out that the radiation frequency, or RF waves from the tower were determined to emit “less than three-quarters of one percent” of electromagnetic energy allowed under Federal Communication Commission rules.

“Your cell phone has more energy than an antennae from three-quarters of a mile away,” said an AT&T RF engineer. He added that the effects diminish with distance from the tower.

But one woman expressed her nonscientific opinion. “It just doesn’t sound like something you’d choose to have close to you.”

Judy Veit said FCC assessments of radiation effects are 30 years old, and that other types of rays studied more recently are not part of their assessment. “The FCC is very much behind the times,” she said. “Do I want to sleep every night in my bedroom,” she asked, knowing that the cell tower is 300–500 feet away from her home.

Collins pointed out that under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the health effects of towers may not be considered in citing tower placement, as long as it meets the other standards.

Noise impact

The ordinance requires that towers keep their noise levels to within 55 to 70 decibels at all major lot lines.

Cody said the 80-kilowat generator planned for the tower is designed to meet the needs of more than one carrier. The application proposes up to four generators.

One woman pointed out that the generators would run continuously in the event of a power outage.

Resident Chuck Renneker said the project ought to be considered as a total package, with co-locators, in order to assess its impact.

Eddie Rolfe of Harrison was the only person attending who spoke in support of the plan by AT&T Mobility and American Towers. “I’m not worried about rays,” he said. Rolfe pointed out that there is a tower in Conway, N.H. that is sited above a condo development and a church, and another in Harrison that is sited between a house and a barn. “These board members have a job to do,” he said. “It’s easier to be against something than to be for it.”

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