Acadia Park tower proposal gets static

Posted June 04, 2009, at 7:59 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:07 p.m.

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — The top of the tallest peak in Maine’s only national park is being considered as a site for a new, 80-foot-tall tower to enhance federal homeland security communications, according to officials.

Officials with Acadia National Park are concerned that placing any new communications equipment at the summit of Cadillac Mountain would have an adverse visual impact on the natural setting of the park. Cadillac Mountain, one of the busiest sites in Acadia, is the only peak accessible by a public road in the park, which gets more than 2 million visitors a year.

Officials with the park and with Friends of Acadia told the park’s citizen advisory commission on Monday that U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is considering Cadillac Mountain as a site for the tower. Cadillac is one of about 60 sites in the state under consideration by CBP for such structures, although officials declined to reveal the exact locations.

Len Bobinchock, deputy superintendent of Acadia, told the commission that the park found out about CBP’s interest in placing a tower on Cadillac a few months ago after one of Maine’s Indian tribes was notified about the proposal by the Federal Communications Commission.

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“We learned about it from the Penobscot Nation,” Bobinchock told the panel.

Bobinchock told the commission that Customs & Border Protection is considering as many as 66 sites in the state for possible communications tower locations.

John Kelly, park planner for Acadia, said earlier this week that park officials first heard about the tower possibility for Cadillac in March. He said he since has talked directly with Customs and Border Protection officials about it and in early May e-mailed them information about the park’s position on erecting new communications equipment on Cadillac. He has not heard from them since, he said.

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Lloyd Easterling of the agency’s Washington, D.C., public affairs office on Thursday confirmed that CBP is considering the summit of Cadillac as a possible tower site. He said it is one of approximately 60 tower sites being considered throughout Maine.

The purpose of erecting more towers in the state is to provide CBP agents with better communications capabilities, he said.

“We have a communication vulnerability up in that area,” Easterling said. “Having an improved system or tower in the area helps with our mission and with keeping our men and women safe.”

The latest proposal to erect a tower on Cadillac is similar to a request Acadia received in 2007 from the U.S. Coast Guard, which also is part of the Department of Homeland Security, according to Kelly. Because of the park’s concerns about towers on Cadillac, the Coast Guard has dropped its interest in the mountain and is looking to use towers proposed for Swan’s Island and Harrington.

Kelly said Tuesday there already are two communications towers on top of Cadillac: one used by federal agencies, and another by state and local agencies. He said the existing federal tower, which is about 60 feet high with an additional 10-foot antenna, is licensed for use by the park service, the Island Explorer bus system, the Coast Guard, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service. The state tower, used by state and local agencies, is about 40 feet tall, or roughly the same height as the surrounding trees.

“The [park’s] goal or policy for the top of Cadillac is not to increase the [communications] facilities there in terms of size or scope,” Kelly said.

Eventually, the park wants to mitigate the visual impact of these towers on the mountain’s summit, Kelly said.

Marla O’Byrne, president of Friends of Acadia, on Tuesday echoed the concerns about the potential impact of erecting any new towers on Cadillac. She said she is glad park officials are in discussions with CBP about finding alternative sites outside the park.

“We feel it would be inappropriate to have something 80- to 100-feet [tall] at the summit,” she said.

Easterling said that along with the Cadillac summit, alternative tower sites and scenarios are being considered. He said CBP has not decided it needs to erect a tower on the mountain, or that it needs as many as 60 towers in Maine.

He declined to indicate where else in Maine CBP is considering possible tower sites, saying that such information would be released when the agency submits an environmental impact assessment of its plans.

Easterling said the styles of tower CPB might use depend on the individual tower locations. He said it was too early to know how long it might take the agency to determine where it wants to put towers in Maine.

“We need to weigh what’s going to be the best solution for everyone involved,” Easterling said.

In 2007, the Coast Guard proposed erecting a tower between 80- and 100- feet high at the top of Cadillac for its new nationwide Rescue 21 emergency communications system. The summit of Cadillac Mountain sits more than 1,500 feet above the ocean, the edge of which is little more than two miles away from the mountaintop.

But because of the park’s opposition to increasing the amount of such equipment on the mountain, the Coast Guard eventually was convinced not to pursue locating any Rescue 21 equipment in Acadia.

According to Tom Tansey, environmental program manager for the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 system, the Coast Guard is pursuing plans to erect a 185-foot tower on Swan’s Island, next to where a 300-foot U.S. Cellular tower already exists, and to mount Rescue 21 antennas on a privately owned 350-foot tower that is expected to be erected in Harrington.

The Coast Guard wants to erect a separate tower on Swan’s Island because the existing tower is not sufficient to support the weight of the Coast Guard’s antennas, which can total several hundred pounds, Tansey said Tuesday.

Ron Gallant, chairman of Harrington’s planning board, said Wednesday that Train Communications Inc. plans to erect a communications tower off Old Addison Road. The company’s application has already been approved by the local planning board, he said, and the firm obtained a building permit earlier this spring.

According to Tansey, having two sites in Swan’s Island and Harrington is not as ideal as using one site on top of Cadillac. Because the mountain summit is 1,500 feet above sea level, a communications tower mounted there would be able to serve a larger area than two towers erected closer to sea level.

“Cadillac Mountain is a superior site,” Tansey said. “We’re not going to get the distance offshore [with sites at Swan’s Island and Harrington].”

Tansey added, however, that there will be “extremely good communications” with the Rescue 21 system, even with the lower towers off Mount Desert Island. The Rescue 21 system will be digital rather than analog, he said, and will enable mariners and the Coast Guard to receive valuable information about vessels in distress, even without establishing vocal contact with that vessel, he said.

“The mariners in the area will be well-served by what we come up with,” Tansey said.

Other sites in Maine the Coast Guard has chosen for its Rescue 21 antennas include Quoddy Head, Rockland, Bristol, Westbrook and Ogunquit, according to Tansey. With the exception of Quoddy Head, where a pre-existing Coast Guard tower was extended to a total height of roughly 90 feet, all other sites involve existing, privately owned towers at least 300 feet high that have other public and private users, he said.

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