April 1, 2011

US Cellular tower ready to go in Albion

By Scott Monroe smonroe@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

ALBION — The 190-foot-tall cell tower went up on the edge of a hayfield Wednesday, capping more than a year of controversy.

click image to enlarge

Three workers can be seen at different heights on a U.S. Cellular tower being built on a farm in Albion off Route 137 and is expected to be in service soon.

Staff photo by David Leaming

The tower's wireless signal is scheduled to go live in about a month, said Richard Houde, project manager for U.S. Cellular.

"Construction has been going very well, and we're planning to have the site in service by the end of April," Houde said Thursday. "We just need to finish cleaning up the site and finish touching it up."

The tower's construction was welcome news to Jeff Shores, the dairy farmer whose family land on Belfast Road is the site of the tower. The farmers signed an $800 a month lease for the cell tower to be located on their land and an access road built out to the site. They began receiving that lease money in January, Shores said.

Last November, Shores said he was "really ticked off" after the town had denied U.S. Cellular a permit to construct the tower. The nationwide company soon filed a complaint in U.S. District Court, and as a result the town of Albion reached a consent agreement to settle the case and avoid a costly court battle.

Under the agreement, the Planning Board's decision to deny the tower permit was legally tossed out and the town agreed to immediately grant permit approval. U.S. Cellular, in turn, agreed to abide by the town's land-use ordinance, which sets standards for project construction.

Shores said Thursday that he was unconcerned by the delay and was pleased by the tower's construction.

"I'm happy and I don't hear any complaints," Shores said. "I can't see it (the tower) from my house, but I can when I'm up at the barn."

U.S. Cellular, represented by the firm Black Diamond Consultants of Gardiner, filed an application on Jan. 11, 2010, to construct a 190-foot-tall cell tower by the woods. The company says a new tower is needed to fill a cell coverage gap for the Albion area.

After many Planning Board meetings and public hearings, the key disagreement that emerged was whether U.S. Cellular actually needed to build its own tower or whether the company could instead put an antenna on either of the two existing cell towers in Albion, owned by the company Stargate, of Winslow. Albion's zoning ordinance specifically stated that the applicant must prove a need for the project.

U.S. Cellular submitted a study concluding that construction of the new tower was needed, while another study from Stargate said their tower could fill Albion's coverage gap. The Planning Board asked U.S. Cellular to pay for an independent, third party study, but the company declined to do so.

In a July 12 decision, the Planning Board's seven members unanimously voted to reject the application, citing U.S. Cellular's refusal to pay for another study. The application then went to Albion's Board of Appeals, which denied the company's appeal of the decision.

The Auburn-based law firm Trafton & Matzen LLP filed a federal complaint on U.S. Cellular's behalf in November.

Faced with the prospect of a protracted battle in federal court that the town couldn't afford, Albion's three-member Board of Selectmen soon decided to reach a consent agreement with U.S. Cellular.

"It was out of my hands when the select board decided they weren't going to pursue the case," said Frank Siviski, secretary to the Planning Board. "It was kind of sad U.S. Cellular didn't have to go through any sort of review process."

Selectmen have said the U.S. Cellular case highlighted a need for the town to update its ordinance on wireless communication facilities. Selectmen discussed placing a temporary moratorium on new applications for wireless projects so the town could review its rules, which haven't been updated since 2002.

But selectmen opted not to place either the moratorium or the rule update on the recent town meeting agenda.

Siviski doesn't think it's too critical to pursue those changes right away.

"I don't foresee anybody else putting up a new cell tower in the near future," Siviski said. "There's three in town now."

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