ROME — A key vote in a yearlong battle about a proposed cell tower in Rome will take place soon, town leaders said.
Environmental groups say the tower will ruin the view, while the applying company says it is needed to provide better reception to residents.
It’s been more than a year since the town’s Planning Board first received an application for a 190-foot tower on privately owned land on a ridge known as The Mountain, which is between Route 27 and Great Pond in a small community known for its scenic views and recreational opportunities.
The town also is known for something else, according to Blaine Hopkins, a representative of Global Tower Partners, which applied for the tower.
“From about the time you hit the Belgrade town line all the way up to where we want to put the tower, service is virtually nonexistent,” he said. “You’ll find some, but it goes in and out. It’s spotty.”
Global Towers was founded in 2002 and is now owned by American Tower, which Hopkins called one of the largest tower companies in the world. Hopkins said he doesn’t know how many people the company employs in Maine.
If built, the tower could be used by multiple cellphone providers, such as Sprint and U.S. Cellular.
Over the past 17 years, Hopkins said, he’s been involved with building about 750 towers. In that time, fewer than 10 proposed towers were rejected, he said.
This particular cell tower is different, according to environmental advocates. For a tourism-dependent town that relies on the attractiveness of its natural resources, they say, the tower site is too visible from too many vantage points.
“Not everyone wants to come to a quaint little village and in your face is a big cell tower,” said Gail Rizzo, president of the Belgrade Lakes Association.
The group hasn’t taken an official stance on the tower, but she said the proposal threatens the visual splendor for people on the Kennebec Highlands, Blueberry Hill, French Mountain, Long Pond and Great Pond.
“That’s the economic engine in our area,” she said. “The Belgrade Lakes region relies on the hiking, the biking, the water activities.”
Hopkins said the cell tower is a necessary part of modern living.
“Is a cell tower pretty?” he said. “No. If you have no service, is that pretty? No.”
Leaders deliberate; charges traded as town leaders deliberate
Since the application was first submitted to the Planning Board, the contentious issue has resulted in a war of words and piles of paperwork, according to Denny Phillips, board co-chairman, who recused himself from the issue during a contentious four-hour meeting earlier this month.
The application submitted by Global Towers was hundreds of pages long, Phillips said, and the board also has received position statements and letters from about a dozen area business owners, residents and environmental groups. The Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance commissioned a visual impact study from Portland-based DeWan & Associates, which generated pictures of the landscape from various vantage points with a simulated image of the tower added in.
The town also has spent $8,500 on an independent consultant to study the issue, at Global Towers’ expense.
Phillips opposes the tower. He said he doesn’t believe there is a lack of service.
“They presented it as if there’s this need for coverage in the area, and there isn’t,” he said. “Nobody here is complaining about coverage.”
The company has accused several board members of being biased because of their membership in the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance, which has been outspoken against the tower.
“Four of the Planning Board members are members of the BRCA, and the BRCA has been perhaps our major opposition to the project,” Hopkins said.
Two of the six board members sit on the environmental group’s board of directors, while two others are members of the group.
The Planning Board considered the issue at its December meeting, and, in a vote, indicated that it did not see a conflict of interest that would prevent those members from acting on the issue.
Phillips said Rome has only about 800 registered voters, and 136 of them are conservation alliance members. “Twenty percent of the population is in the same situation,” he said.
He accused the company of trying to intimidate the town by bringing lawyers to the December board meeting.
“They’ll stop at nothing,” Phillips said. “Nobody has spoken in favor of the cell tower except for the people building it,” he said.
Hopkins said the vote doesn’t change the company’s position.
“The fact that we brought it up would indicate that we disagree,” he said.
Decision expected soon
Selectman Paul Anderson said the Planning Board is expected to make a final decision on the application during a meeting scheduled for Jan. 13. He said that, as far as the town is concerned, the issue will be decided by a vote of the board, which will rely on the evidence and the town’s cell tower ordinance to make a decision.
“I try to be a neutral spectator,” Anderson said, “but I guess, if this was the first cell tower in the town I would be more concerned than I am with it being the fourth or fifth.”
There is only one other cell tower in Rome right now, a 300-foot tower with blinking lights on top of it farther up Route 27, but other towers from the neighboring communities of Oakland, Belgrade and Sidney can be seen from Great Pond.
Hopkins said that if the board rejects the application during its January meeting, the issue will not be over.
“We have recourse,” he said. He declined to specify what the next action of the company might be, but said “we feel the application meets the ordinance as they have adopted it and it should be a relatively easy decision for them. If you have an ordinance and you meet it, we would expect it to be approved.”
Hopkins said the conservation alliance is trying to control property that it doesn’t own.
“It’s a piece of private property,” he said.
Charles Baeder, executive director of the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance, said the issue has special meaning for the organization, which has never taken a stand against a cell tower before.
This tower is different, because it would be less than a mile from French Mountain, which was the first property the alliance acquired in 1991.
“That’s why I think the board took a stand,” he said. “Our donors have given us money to preserve these properties.”
Baeder said he’s not opposed to the idea of a cell tower in general.
“I’m not anti-cellphone,” Baeder said. “I use a cellphone, and I like having good service.”
He just doesn’t like the current proposal, and he wants the company to explore other sites, or a shorter tower. The town ordinance requires that the Planning Board take the visual impact into account, and the visual impact is significant, he said.
“Views matter from a conservation point of view,” he said. “A site that’s three miles away, nobody has much concern about it. When you get close to a tower, it starts to have a visual impact.”