VEAZIE, Maine — Town councilors face a decision next week that has implications for both the town and the state.
At issue is a 180-foot-tall communications tower proposed for Buck Hill, where some of the town’s most scenic views and priciest real estate are located.
The tower, slated for a parcel owned by the Orono-Veazie Water District that currently houses a water tower, is part of a plan to develop a statewide state-of-the-art digital communications system called the Maine State Communications Network, or MSCommNet.
Click here for a Map of Maine Radio Towers. Map courtesy of the State of Maine Office of Information Technology.
The system, which consists of 43 strategically placed towers as far north as Debouille Mountain in northern Aroostook County and as far south as Pleasant Mountain in Oxford County, will replace obsolete infrastructure installed in the early 1970s, according to officials from the state Office of Information Technology, which is heading up the project. Members of the project team say MSCommNet will help address radio “dead spots” around the state.
Veazie police and fire officials have expressed their support for the tower because they want to piggyback on it, a measure they say would address local dead spots on Buck Hill and along Stillwater Avenue.
Opposition from residents
Plans to install one of the towers on Buck Hill in Veazie, however, have been met with resistance, especially among residents of that neighborhood.
During planning board and Town Council meetings in recent months, residents have said they were blindsided by the state’s plan to erect a tower in their backyard. Several cited concerns about property values, aesthetics and potential health concerns, some of which since have been addressed.
Robert Rice, a University of Maine wood science professor who lives in the neighborhood, said he learned of the tower plan last spring, when surveyors were seen near the tower site.
Rice said this week he was assured at the time that the tower was “a moot point” because the town’s ordinances banned structures of more than 35 feet in height. He said he and the Town Council later learned that the ordinance had been misinterpreted and that the town had no way to limit or restrict where towers of any kind can be erected.
He and other Veazie residents took their concerns to local and state officials.
“Nobody’s against towers, nobody’s against safety and nobody’s against a good communication system,” he said in a telephone interview. Rather, Rice said, it’s the fact that the town has no rules in place that has raised residents’ hackles.
The amount of opposition from Veazie residents took state officials by surprise.
“We’ve never had this level of resistance,” Greg McNeal, chief information officer for the Office of Information Technology, said last week in a teleconference with several other staffers.
Shawn Romanoski, radio services director for the office, agreed: “We’re certainly spending a lot more time in Veazie. The number of visits [to Veazie to answer questions and allay concerns] has by far exceeded the number of visits to any other site.”
In order to gain time to review the existing ordinance and address any shortcomings, including a lack of setbacks and height limits, the Town Council imposed a 180-day moratorium on such towers on March 1, Veazie Code Enforcement Officer Allan Thomas said last month. When the moratorium expired this summer, councilors imposed another effective through next February.
In the meantime, the planning board has developed a series of proposed ordinance amendments that among other things limit towers to 125 feet in height and to the industrial zone alone Stillwater Avenue.
After a public hearing on Nov. 14, members voted 4-1 to send the amendments to town councilors for adoption during a meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 6.
McNeal said the amendments, if adopted, would “irreversibly impede the state’s ability to fully implement [MSCommNet], which pursuant to federal law must be completed by the fall of 2012.”
In a Nov. 8 letter to town officials, he said the amendments would prevent the state from locating a tower on Buck Hill, which he said is “the only viable option in the Veazie area that ensures statewide coverage.”
Why Buck Hill?
“The Buck Hill site basically chose us; we didn’t choose it,” McNeal said.
To illustrate that point, McNeal said designing the statewide system was like setting dominos up on a table just far enough apart so each touches the others when pushed over.
“The reason we’ve done that is because we are trying to maximize the use of technology while minimizing the cost,” McNeal said.
“But if you take one of those dominos out of there, it causes a significant hole and the model doesn’t work,” he said. “When the Buck Hill site is taken off the table, we have to go back out there and look at the alternatives.”
Despite complaints that the tower will be an eyesore on Buck Hill, which is listed as a scenic resource in the town’s comprehensive plan, members of the state project team say it will be barely visible, even in winter when the trees are bare.
“We have looked at all of the alternatives that Veazie has submitted to us and we have found them unacceptable for one reason or another,” McNeal said.
“They were either down in a hole, too far away from the other dominoes and the infrastructure laid out, and in some cases to make it work you’d have to build a tower that was quite high — in the neighborhood of 400 feet — to get the coverage we need,” he said.
Romanoski said the Veazie tower must be positioned so that it can link to surrounding towers in Passadumkeag, Lincoln, Garland and Searsport.
Though state officials acknowledge an alternative site the water district owns on Kelley Road in Orono could work, Romanoski said district officials led the project team to Buck Hill because it was easier to access and less costly to develop.
McNeal said his main responsibility is to meet the needs of public safety personnel.
“It’s imperative that we have a system that allows them to do their job safely and efficiently,” he said. “When they push the button to talk, they want somebody to be able to hear them and to respond.”
Ideally, the state hopes Veazie will allow an exception for towers used for public safety purposes, McNeal said.
If the town councilors adopt the proposed ordinance changes next week, which many expect they will, the state’s options boil down to having to “re-engineer the whole thing for that stretch” to accommodate an alternative tower site or appeal the decision in court, McNeal said.
Given the impact that re-engineering would have on the project’s progress, the state likely would pursue an appeal on the grounds that the tower is a key component of the state’s public safety infrastructure.
“We’re basically going to exhaust all efforts,” he said. “If there’s going to be an appeals process, we’ve got to look at what types of leeway you have when you’re building a site like this. We think we’re on solid ground.”