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Proposed Alton cell tower stirs controversy

August 25, 2010
ALTON — The seven-year cell tower debate resumed at the Alton Planning Board meeting last Tuesday evening.

The proposed 100-foot monopole tower on East Side Drive is still causing controversy after the plan was first conceived in 2003.

The construction proposal has been tabled for some time because of ongoing lawsuits. At Tuesday's meeting, however, most legal issues were deemed settled, and the board felt it was appropriate to proceed.

"Now is the time to process this application," said interim planner Mike Garrepy.

Industrial Communications and Electronics Inc. proposed constructing a 100-foot cell tower with carriers U.S. Cellular, Verizon Wireless and AT&T. The structure would occupy 100 square feet of space, surrounded by an eight-foot-high chain link fence. The site would also possess several outbuildings housing electrical generators and maintenance equipment. A 3,800-foot gated access road would connect the tower to East Side Drive.

Originally, the proposal called for 120-foot structure designed to fill gaps in cell phone coverage around Route 28 and Route 11. Due to the height of the tower, and its impact on the town's overall aesthetic, the project required a variance from the Alton Zoning Board of Adjustment. The variance was denied, and shortly thereafter Industrial Communications and Electronics Inc., along with its affiliated cell phone companies, filed a lawsuit against the town of Alton. The courts ruled in favor of the telecommunications companies, finding the town to be in violation the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which states that towns cannot block the construction of cell phone towers that fill gaps in coverage.

The town, along with abutter David Slade, a New York attorney and seasonal Alton resident, appealed the decision in state and federal court. But due to mounting legal costs, the town agreed to settle in 2009 despite Slade's offer to cover further legal bills. Although the town conceded that the tower could be built, they forced the companies to reduce the height of the tower from 120 feet to 100 feet.

At last Tuesday's meeting the town approved the tower's application and scheduled a site walk of the proposed construction.

Although the board progressed with the plan, Slade's attorney Paul Fitzgerald and Alton resident Russ Wilson protested the board's actions during public input.

"Hold off until he (Slade) has had his day in court," bellowed Wilson.

"Slade has already had his day in court," responded attorney Steve Grill, who represented Industrial Communications and Electronics Inc. "It's been a long battle, and I'd say a few of us are a little tired of it."

Wilson also questioned the Industrial Communication and Electronics Inc.'s business practices. He said the company originally proposed a higher tower with fewer carriers, but then changed their plan to a shorter tower with more carriers. He took these alterations as evidence that the tower would provide inadequate coverage to the area.

"This [proposal] wouldn't pass the smell test in my opinion," he said.

Fitzgerald joined the fray in an attempt to stall the building process by listing several smaller violations made by the cell tower plan, including improper road width and slope. He also criticized the idea of disguising the cell tower as an oversized pine.

"It's not a tree, it doesn't look like a tree," said Fitzgerald.

He added it was his belief that a court-ordered variance was not the appropriate exercise of judicial power.

He then claimed that the cell tower case was still "under review," and consequently, should not have been discussed at the meeting.

There were also a number of personal issues in play with this particular proposal.

In a recent phone interview with The Baysider, Slade said that the cell tower, if built, would diminish the value of his property. He said he opposes the tower, in part, because he wants to maintain the property's natural aesthetic.

"I've been going up there my whole life," said Slade.

In between accusations, the board discussed the plan itself, which had its own set of problems.

Alton Planning Board Chairman Timothy Roy and board member Cindy Balcius questioned the completeness of the application. Balcius asked why the telecommunications company's application was approved despite failing to meet many basic requirements.

Garrepy assumed the blame, saying that it was his understanding that the application did not have to be totally complete before getting the board's approval.

"You can put it on my shoulders," he said.

The board decided to continue the case to the Sept. 21 meeting.

Other business

The Bob Bahre Alton Properties application was up for discussion after a month-long break.

Bahre wishes to construct 2,460-square-foot and 6,180-square-foot commercial structures with parking lots near the Hannaford's on Route 28.

Balcius said that the proposed construction would minimally impact the surrounding wetlands.

The board reviewed the feasibility of permeable pavement to cut down on water runoff. Permeable pavement, unlike traditional pavement, allows water to easily seep into the ground.

Selectmen's representative David Hussey asked about the upkeep of such a system, and whether one could use everyday technology such as a powerwasher to keep the pavement free of debris that could hamper drainage.

A representative of Golde Planning and Design said that maintenance for permeable pavement was low, and one could use high-pressure water from a powerwasher to clear debris caught in the pavement's pores.

Garrepy urged the board to move it forward to the Sept. 9 workshop meeting, despite calls from the applicants to approve the plan.

Although the plan was not approved, Roy assured the applicants that the plan was "conditionally approved pending conditions."

Jobean LLC came in front of the board to request a change of use for a structure on 5 Homestead Place.

The owner of the property wanted to change the use of a "white cape" from a retail space to a restaurant.

The unmarked gravel parking lot drew the most criticism from the planning board.

Board member Scott Williams said that the parking situation there was a potential "horror show."

Currently, there are creosote front wheel stops indicating parking spaces.

After a long discussion, the site was approved for a change of use so long as concrete wheel stops and guardrails are installed to help define parking spaces. The plan is also required to meet updated fire code and handicapped access standards.

The Alton Bay Christian Conference Center continued to seek approval for reconstruction of the campground that was consumed by fire on Easter Sunday 2009.

Mark McLeod of HL Turner Group described the improvements made to the property, which included the widening of access roads, better storm water management, and increased road setbacks.

Many residents of the center were in attendance, and described their fond memories of the community during public input. They urged the board to approve the site plan so that the center may be rebuilt in a timely fashion.

The main concern with the updated plan was emergency vehicle access. Williams was particularly worried about illegally parked cars blocking emergency vehicles. He suggested placing concrete flowerpots on the side of the main access road to discourage improper parking.

The residents of the center said that additional anti-parking measures were unnecessary because they strictly enforced their parking regulations.

The plan was continued, but the board was optimistic an approval was near.

Richard and Nancy Coskren's application for a two-lot subdivision was tabled.

Williams was concerned that the access road was too narrow for emergency vehicles. Richard Coskren defended the current setup, saying that emergency vehicles were able to access his house after he broke his hip last winter.

A minor lot line adjustment between two parcels on Hillside Drive was approved. Two hundred thirty-one square feet will be reassigned to the 20 Hillside Drive parcel to allow enough room for an addition to be put on the main house. The two parcels are owned by the same family.

Alton resident Chuck Westen asked how he should file a complaint against a parcel of lakefront property that had been clear-cut of trees.

The board responded that it was likely a state issue, but that he should first file a complaint with the Alton Board of Selectmen.

Next meeting

The next Alton Planning Board meeting will be held on Sept. 21 at the Alton Town Hall.

Weston Sager can be reached at 569-3126 or wsager@salmonpress.com

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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