VEAZIE, Maine — Town councilors Monday night continued discussion but made no final decisions about proposed rules for communications towers in their town.
After hearing legal opinions from the state and their legal counsel in the matter, the councilors voted unanimously to schedule a public hearing for 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 3, at the municipal building, Town Manager Bill Reed said Tuesday.
At issue is a 180-foot-tall communications tower the state wants to put up on 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 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.
The system consists of 43 strategically placed towers throughout Maine that 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 and that the proposed Buck Hill tower is a critical piece of the system and the “only viable option in the Veazie area that ensures statewide coverage.”
Veazie police and fire officials have expressed 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.
Some residents, mostly from Buck Hill, oppose it on the basis that they weren’t kept informed of the state’s plan until after it already was well under way. Some also expressed concerns about the tower’s impact on aesthetics and property values.
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. When the moratorium expired this summer, councilors imposed another effective through next February.
In the meantime, the planning board developed a set of proposed ordinance changes that would limit towers to 125 feet in height and to the industrial zone along Stillwater Avenue.
In a Dec. 9 letter to Town Council Chairman Rod Hathaway, state Chief Information Officer Greg McNeal said the proposed rules would “irreversibly impede the state’s ability to fully implement [MSCommNet],” which he said federal law requires must be completed by the fall of 2012.
He also said the amendments were “unduly restrictive and will have a serious adverse impact on the communication capabilities of state, county and municipal public agencies, including Veazie police, fire and emergency medical services.”
He asked that the town consider adopting an exception for towers that are part of MSCommNet, provided they are located at least 1,000 feet from any existing home, that every attempt is made to mitigate visual impact and other adverse effects on surrounding residential areas, and that the towers stand no taller than 200 feet above ground level.
Erik Stumpfel, the town’s legal counsel in the matter, was asked to weigh in.
In a legal opinion issued this month, he noted that some proposed ordinance amendments could be problematic if they conflict with the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996. The act, he said, states that municipalities “may not enact or enforce provisions that have the effect of totally preventing the location of telecommunications facilities and towers within their municipal limits.”
The federal law could pre-empt the proposed height restriction “if those restrictions would otherwise prevent the location of functioning [wireless communication towers] in Veazie.”