ROME — With lawyers and environmentalists watching their every move, Planning Board members, most of whom have been accused of bias, have delayed a decision on whether to allow a new cellphone tower off Route 27.
Global Tower Partners, a cell tower company, has asked the town for permission to build a 190-foot tower on privately owned land on a ridge known as The Mountain, which lies between Route 27 and Great Pond.
After more than a year of wrangling, the board was planning to vote on the issue Monday night but pushed it back until its next meeting, on Feb. 10, following some legal advice, said Dick Greenan, board co-chairman.
Greenan said whichever way the board votes, it is likely to set off an appeal and a subsequent legal challenge.
“This is not an easy process,” he said. “It’s been a long procedure and with a lot of lawyers involved.”
He said the town’s attorney, Frank Underkuffler, recommended that instead of voting on the proposal now, the board should complete an official finding of fact, in which both sides presented their case and the board members then deliberate among themselves.
“It may go into Maine Supreme Court afterwards,” Greenan said. “But we don’t know that. At this point, we’re just dotting all the Is and crossing all the Ts.”
The tower has been opposed by the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance, an influential environmental group that owns a plot of land on nearby French Mountain. The group says that the visual impact of the tower would be too great, spoiling views and potentially depressing tourism in the region.
Tower company representative Blaine Hopkins said boaters on Great Pond can already see four or five towers from the water anyway, most of them in the neighboring communities of Belgrade, Oakland and Sidney.
Blaine Hopkins, a representative of the tower company, did not respond to a phone call seeking comment, but he has previously laid out the argument for the tower. The community needs more towers to meet growing demand for service. he said.
“In 1997, there were 45 million users of cellphones in the country, and now there are 350 million,” Hopkins said. Increasingly, cellphone users are relying on the towers to support data needs like Internet browsing, he said.
Hopkins said the tower is needed in order to provide good service to those living in and traveling through Rome.
Greenan and other town leaders have said no one has complained about spotty service before. He acknowledged that there are dead spots but said the tower would not eliminate them.
Accusations of bias
In December, the company accused four of the Planning Board’s six members of having a conflict of interest because they are also affiliated with the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance.
There are many ties between the two groups.
Barbara Saxton and Alan Labelle are the only Planning Board members without any official connection to the alliance.
Planning Board Co-chairman Greenan is also the alliance’s treasurer, while his Planning Board co-chairman, Denny Phillips, is a current member and a founder of the alliance.
Planning Board member Jack Schultz is on the alliance’s board of directors, and his brother and sister-in-law, Peter and Hillary Schultz, own land that abuts the property of the proposed cell tower site.
Planning board member John Schlosser is also a member of the alliance.
Of the four, only Phillips recused himself from the Planning Board’s cell tower deliberations and he said it was because of his own personal feelings, not because of his membership in the alliance.
“I was clearly not an unbiased member of the planning board,” Phillips said. “It has nothing to do with my membership.”
Phillips said he is opposed to the proposal because it would spoil the views for area hikers and boaters, not because the alliance tells him how to think.
“I don’t agree with a lot of the things they (the alliance leaders) are doing,” he said. “I’m still my own person.”
Phillips said that, in one case, the cell tower will literally cast a shadow across a trail that runs on abutting property up the Mountain.
In December, the Planning Board considered the issue of bias and, in a poll of board members, indicated that it did not see a conflict of interest that would prevent those members from acting on the issue.
Phillips said Rome only has about 800 registered voters, 136 of whom are conservation alliance members and so some overlap should be expected, particularly when you’re looking at the smaller pool of people who are interested in civic matters.
The conservation alliance “is pretty much the only game in town when it comes to environmental and conservation issues,” he said.
The public comment section of the debate is over, Greenan said, and now the planning board members are gearing up to make a final decision on Monday, Feb. 10. The board will take separate votes on whether the application meets each of several requirements in the ordinance, and then will take a final vote approving or rejecting the application.
While the issue before the planning board is whether the tower application meets the town’s cellphone tower ordinance it’s not as clearcut as it sounds, Greenan said.
“You’ve got language in the ordinance that says, âadequate coverage.’ How do you define adequate coverage?” he asked. Another section, he said, requires that the tower be least detrimental to the views. “How do you define that, least detrimental?” he said.
Greenan and Phillips both said Planning Board members have also had a difficult time dealing with the issue because it is mired in unfamiliar technical details.
The town is already home to one cell tower, a 300-foot-tall construct on Hampshire Hill, farther up Route 27. Whether that tower already provides enough coverage is hotly debated, and the debate is couched in terms like wattage, downtilt, antenna degrees, frequency, serviceless pockets and propagation maps.
“None of us are engineers and we don’t really understand all this stuff,” Phillips said. “They keep us hobbled by all this technical stuff.”
The upshot is that the tower company says a second tower is needed to improve service, while a consultant hired by the town, Richard Comi of the Center for Municipal Solutions in New York, says the second tower is not needed, according to Greenan.
Parsing through their arguments and deciding how to interpret the subjective phrases in the ordinance will help to guide the board’s decision.
“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors here to confuse the layperson, which we are,” Greenan said. “It’s difficult.”
Phillips said he expected legal action from the tower company if the application is refused.
“They obviously are not going to be satisfied with anything but approval,” he said. “And they apparently have all the money in the world and can wear us down.”