VEAZIE, Maine — Despite concerns raised by state officials and local public safety personnel, town councilors Monday night adopted a strict set of rules for communications towers,
The amendments to the town’s land use ordinance, which limit towers to industrial zones and set height restrictions, were adopted in a unanimous vote.
The rules were prompted by the state’s plan to install a 180-foot-tall communications tower 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 the state’s $50 million plan to develop a statewide state-of-the-art digital communications system called the Maine State Communications Network, or MSCommNet.
The system will consist 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.
Residents, however, say the state should put the tower on an alternate site along Kelly Road in nearby Orono.
The 5-0 vote to adopt the tower rules followed a brief public hearing during which councilors heard from residents who favored the new rules and others who opposed them.
Residents Robert and Patricia Rice, Carol Arnold and Robert McElwain spoke in favor of adopting the rules, which were developed by the town’s planning board.
“I think it’s overall a well-written ordinance and a very good ordinance for the community,” Robert Rice said.
Arnold applauded the fact that the ordinance essentially keeps towers out of residential areas.
John Manter, a local firefighter, was the sole planning board member who voted against the proposed rules. Manter asked that the town allow an exemption for the state tower, which local public safety officials say would help address radio dead spots in town.
Fire Capt. Pete Metcalf agreed. Metcalf noted that in some cases, firefighters’ pagers weren’t activating and that the communications gap also affected the town’s police, public works and sewer departments.
Metcalf urged councilors to hold off on their vote until the town received a report on a communications study being conducted separately from the state project “so that we don’t make a wrong decision for our community not only now but for 20 or 30 years into the future.”
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.
That letter was read into the hearing’s public record by Craig Hitchings, radio project office manager.
In his letter, McNeal 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.”
After the vote, Hitchings said the state would continue its search for an alternate site, but he also said discussions with the Attorney General’s Office indicate that state law may give Gov.-elect Paul LePage the authority to override Veazie’s ordinance.
He said, however, that the matter has yet to be brought before LePage, who steps into his new post later this week.