Board says no to cell tower moratorium

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Hopes held by Hio Ridge Road residents that the town of Bridgton would go to bat for them by enacting a moratorium on cell phone towers were dashed Tuesday.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz read from a letter from Town Attorney Richard Spencer advising against the moratorium, saying it would likely run afoul of federal and state laws and be difficult to defend in court.

“If the town adopts a retroactive moratorium on towers, any reviewing court is likely to deem such a moratorium — adopted a few weeks prior to the Planning Board’s decision deadline — as an unreasonable delay in acting on the applicant’s request,” Spencer wrote June 5. It was April 1 when the Planning Board began their review of AT&T and American Towers’ cell phone tower application at 244 Hio Ridge Road. Under the town’s Tower Ordinance, the board has 90 days — or until June 30 — to render their decision.

Spencer did acknowledge that there is no case law in Maine addressing Bridgton’s situation, but said high courts in other states have ruled against moratoriums that are applicable to pending applications. Even a brief 30-day moratorium would not be advised, he said, because of the likelihood that it would be challenged.

Berkowitz was apologetic to Hio Ridge Road residents “for being so bureaucratic” in the town’s approach to the issue, but he explained that the town attorney’s role is to try to assess the risk a town has in terms of whether its actions would result in a court fight.

Spencer also pointed out the town’s weakness, legally speaking, in defending a moratorium on grounds that it is necessary because existing ordinances or other laws are inadequate to prevent public harm. Bridgton adopted a comprehensive tower ordinance, amended in 2009, that states that all towers must be set back from adjacent property boundaries a distance equal to at least 125% of the tower height.

“It would therefore be difficult to defend the necessity of a moratorium, given the existence of a comprehensive ordinance regulating tower siting and construction in the town,” Spencer wrote.

Prior to Berkowitz’s reading of Spencer’s letter, resident Greg Jones was allowed to speak on the moratorium request under old business. There was debate over Jones’ right to speak, because selectmen recently made a change in their agenda format that only allows selectmen to discuss items under old business. But because the change hadn’t been announced beforehand, selectmen allowed both Jones and Hio Ridge Road residents to voice their opinions on the moratorium issue, which had been publicly discussed at the last meeting.

Jones basically reiterated Spencer’s argument that a moratorium wasn’t warranted because of inadequate ordinances or laws. He went further, however, in questioning whether a cell tower would harm property values, saying further study would be needed before that could be proven.

Hio Ridge Road residents asked for equal time, and got it, but by the time Berkowitz had finished reading Spencer’s letter, they sat quietly.

“Is there anywhere that you can go with this thing?” asked Judy Veit. Resident Chad Cummings said the controversy has already caused more than a little division among his neighbors. “I purposely live in the woods of Maine because that’s where I wanted to be,” he said. “This has caused tensions that I never dreamed I’d have to deal with.”

Berkowitz suggested they seek legal advice.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have deep pockets,” Veit answered.

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