After a year of consideration, Rome has rejected an application to build a cell tower along Route 27.
Both the town and the cell tower company now are preparing for a future legal battle about the proposed 190-foot cell tower on a ridge known as The Mountain, which overlooks Great Pond.
The Planning Board on Monday found that the tower didn’t meet the requirements of the town’s communications tower ordinance, which requires there be no significant visual effect.
Neal Pratt, an attorney for Global Towers, said the company is considering all options, including a potential legal challenge.
“We believe very strongly that we more than satisfied all the requirements of the ordinance,” Pratt said.
Planning Board members disagreed, said Chairman Dick Greenan. Mindful of a potential legal challenge, the board’s four members followed the advice of the town attorney and took more than 50 votes that night on various components of the application and whether it met the requirements set out in the ordinance.
“The first vote was on the applicant’s name and the accuracy of that,” Greenan said. “We broke everything down.”
Greenan said one of the board’s major concerns was that Global Towers hadn’t demonstrated adequately that Rome needs a second cell tower. It is already home to a 300-foot tower on Hampshire Hill.
“The applicant says that tower will not provide the necessary service to the residents,” Greenan said, “but the town’s consultant says it will.”
Pratt said the Planning Board members had failed to understand the technical issues at work.
“I think the board had difficulty with some of the technology,” he said. “Some of what was being proposed was supported by unrefuted technical evidence. It became clear to us that the board failed to comprehend some of those technical differences.”
A second major concern that factored into the board’s decision was the tower’s potential visual effect. It would be visible from Blueberry Hill, French Mountain, Long Pond and Great Pond, all popular destinations for hikers and boaters.
“The fact is, you’re going to see it,” Greenan said. “We’re in a conservation-minded area. The Kennebec Highlands are in conservation and this is pretty much smack dab in the middle of it all.”
Under the ordinance, a proposed tower can’t have a significant visual impact, which Greenan said is difficult to define.
Pratt said the Planning Board members are defining the term too narrowly, in a way that could land them on the wrong side of the Federal Telecommunications Act.
“There are rights for applicants that preclude towns from prohibiting the development of cell towers, either directly or indirectly,” Pratt said.
He said the town can’t prohibit all future cell towers on the argument that they would spoil the view.
The stakes are high for both parties. The tower has been opposed fiercely by the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance, which owns land that abuts the proposed tower site. The group has claimed that the tower will depress tourism to the region and lessen the value of its recreational water opportunities.
For Global Towers, the tower is part of a larger tower network that requires each piece to be in place in order to guarantee a certain level of service.
“One tower ends where another tower is designed to pick it up,” Pratt said. “It isn’t just one tower. It has domino implications for the network as a whole.”
Over the past few months, Global Towers also has raised concerns that the board members are biased because four of them are members of the conservation alliance.
Greenan is the alliance’s treasurer, and Planning Board member Jack Schultz is also on the alliance’s board of directors.
Denny Phillips, who removed himself from voting on the issue, and John Schlosser also have dual membership on the Planning Board and the conservation alliance.
Because of those ties, Pratt said he thinks the members weren’t acting in an unbiased manner.
“An applicant is entitled to a fair shake, and a fair shake means an impartial consideration,” Pratt said.
The Planning Board considered the matter of bias, but the members thought that they could continue to consider the issue without bias. Phillips said the environmental group has not tried to exert an improper influence and that overlap in different organizations should be expected, given the small pool of civic-minded residents in the town.
Greenan said Global Towers has the option to appeal the Planning Board’s decision to the town’s appeals board, which does not have any members in common with the Planning Board.
Pratt said the company is considering that along with other options, which include taking no action at all, or challenging the board’s decision in state or federal court.
Greenan said the town is prepared to engage in a legal battle to uphold the board’s decision.