Hio Ridge residents in uproar over proposed cell tower

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Hio Ridge Road residents are in an uproar over a proposed 130-foot tall AT&T cell phone tower they say will damage both their health and property values.

The 20 or so residents who attended the April 22 Planning Board meeting vigorously protested the tower, and have since filed a citizen’s petition that would require a 750-foot setback of any future tower from an existing private home.

The amendment to the town’s Tower Ordinance would not, however, be retroactive to April 1, when the plans were first heard by the board and a 90-day review period began. The April 1 pre-application was followed by the April 22 site plan review hearing, which was recessed until May 20, when a special meeting will continue the hearing and the start of deliberations by the board.

The citizen’s petition, signed by 295 residents, was submitted Monday to the town, which declared it valid after a review by the town’s attorney. It asks if voters want to amend the Tower Ordinance by adding the following language:

“A cell phone tower must not be placed within 750 feet of an existing private residence, provided, however, that once a cell phone tower has been authorized and constructed, a landowner may build a building or home on their own property except within the fall zone of the tower.”

Led by Paul Veit, who lives at 246 Hio Ridge Road and is one of the more vocal tower opponents, the petition signatures were gathered in three days. A total of 229 signatures are required for a citizen-initiated referendum, a number that represents 10% of the voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

Veit said he was outraged when he learned that Bridgton’s Tower Ordinance doesn’t address the proximity of residential homes. The tower, proposed by a partnership of AT&T and American Towers LLC, is planned for 214 Hio Ridge Road, on leased land accessible from Dragonfly Lane owned in trust by John Harmon and other family members. The newer Frost Farm subdivision is nearby, as well as homes on Hio Ridge Road.

Short notice?

At the April 22 hearing, abutting residents complained they were only given six days’ notice of the meeting. Board Chairman Steve Collins said the notices were postmarked as having been mailed 12 days before the meeting as required by the town. Attorney Barry Hobbins of Saco, representing the applicants, said there was “no grand conspiracy” to keep residents in the dark about the tower plan, and that work began last fall to prepare the application after meeting with town officials. The actual application was submitted seven weeks before April 22, he said.

AT&T has antennas on the Shawnee Peak and Sam Ingalls Road towers, among others in town, he said, but the Hio Ridge Road site is needed to provide the type of high-speed data transfer and 4G connectivity required by today’s smart phones and devices. A site acquisition company proposed the site, and he said he’ll bring along site acquisition representatives to the May 20 meeting to explain their reasoning in choosing the site.

The plans call for a “fall zone” of 162.6 feet from any nearby residences, which reflects 125% of the tower’s height as the ordinance requires. It will be surrounded by a chain-link fence and include an 11.5 ft. by 24ft. building with a diesel generator to maintain signal strength in case of power outages. The tower will be of a newer monopole type, which is designed to collapse on itself and does not need to be supported by guy wires like the old lattice-pole towers. It will not need to be lighted because its height is less than the 200-foot height required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Collins said the proposed noise levels from the generator may exceed what’s allowed in the ordinance, and that the problem will need to be addressed. Hio Ridge Road resident Chuck Renneker said the generator will get a test run around once a week, and others said up to four generators will be needed if, as planned, other companies co-locate antennas on the tower. Fire Chief Glen Garland said he’d like the town to reserve the right, as well, to use the tower for emergency communications.

Hobbins said Bridgton’s Tower Ordinance is “one of the more inclusive” ordinances he has seen, and he has overseen 175 cell tower applications dating back to the early days of cell tower construction in the 1990s.

Balloon a bust?

The Planning Board agreed to require another balloon test after hearing from many of the residents that windy conditions April 17, when the test was done, prevented them from accurately gauging how far above the tree line the tower would be. Hobbins said the height of trees in the neighborhood is between 50 and 75 feet. They also said the balloon was fully aloft only for a matter of 30 seconds or more at a time.

“I bought my land because I have a view,” said Renneker, who lives at 380 Hio Ridge Road. “Now I got a great view of that balloon.”

The board set a date of this Saturday, May 3, for a second balloon test and a site walk. The balloon test will take place between 8:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Health effects?

Carol Ayers was the most vocal among those who opposed the tower because of the adverse effects she said it would have on people’s health. She said many studies have been done indicating the harmful effects of repeated exposure to electromagnetic radiation, including cancer, and while such effects have not yet been proven, the effects will someday be as irrefutable as the effects of cigarette smoking.

Hobbins responded by saying that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is clear in stating that the health effects of cell towers may not be raised when considering their placement and permitting. He added that the signals being emitted are not “microwaves,” as several residents said. “This is low-power FM signals.”

That prompted Paul Veit to shout at Hobbins. “You’re destroying our life!” he said.

His wife, Judy Veit, said the planning board needs to go beyond looking at the proposal in purely academic terms. “You will be unfair to my family and me. That isn’t what I moved to Maine for, to have a big tower in my neighborhood. You would not like that in your yard.”

When the issue of noise from four diesel generators was raised, Hobbins was quick to rule it out of order. “I’m not interested in what Verizon or T-Mobil does. You can’t punish the applicant” for some other company’s plans, he said. Each co-locator would have to come back to the board for approval to co-locate on the tower.

Paul Veit said his online research on the effects of cell towers on property values estimates a 30% drop in the value of a home located close by a cell tower. Referring to the eight or nine collapsing mobile homes at various locations on the Harmon land, he said, “The site looks so bad, it’s affected our property values already.”

Then came the only point in the meeting when the audience approved, and even applauded, when Code Enforcement Officer Robbie Baker said he has declared the Harmon land a junkyard, and will be taking action to order that the dilapidated mobile homes be removed.

Hobbins acknowledged mistakes have been made in the past in siting cell phone towers, and that is why tower companies much prefer if possible to find sites in nonresidential areas. He said a tower proposal in Bar Harbor was killed after residents there organized to oppose it, but he added that Bar Harbor residents have “deeper pockets” than Bridgton residents.

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