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Acadia park officials relax stance on cellphone infrastructure

Tourists admire spray from waves crashing into Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park in August 2011.
Tourists admire spray from waves crashing into Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park in August 2011. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 06, 2012, at 6:13 p.m.

Poll Question

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — When it comes to cellphone coverage on Mount Desert Island, what service has existed over the years has always been spotty.

The island’s mountainous terrain has been one main factor, as have concerns held by Acadia National Park officials about what kind of effect cell towers would have on the landscape and on views of the surrounding area from the park, which includes many peaks. In recognition of the importance of the island’s scenery to its largely tourist economy, some towns on MDI also have exercised caution in permitting the structures.

But on Monday, Acadia officials told the park’s citizen advisory commission that as wireless communications technology has evolved, so has the park’s attitude to cellphone infrastructure.

To a point, that is. The park still is opposed to towers sprouting up around the surrounding landscape. But to the extent that antennas can be erected in more subtle ways, the park is willing to work with cellphone companies and neighboring communities to help improve cellphone reception on and around MDI, Acadia officials told the commission.

John Kelly, planner for the park, said that smartphones are becoming more and more prevalent in the daily lives of many people and do provide ways to enhance the visitor experience. Certainly they are useful in emergency situations, he said, but also there are cellphone applications that can help visitors navigate the park and find services, and without the kind of visual effect that signs can have.

Kelly told the commission that park officials are hoping to meet in the near future with representatives of Verizon and AT&T, and perhaps other firms, to discuss how cellphone coverage in and around the park might be improved. Installing antennas on existing park infrastructure might be among the options discussed, or even erecting discreet 60-foot tall towers that stick up above surrounding trees by only a few feet.

“You can’t provide that service without the infrastructure,” Kelly said.

There are four cellphone towers on MDI that stick up noticeably from the landscape, according to Kelly, one each on Freeman Ridge Road in Southwest Harbor, on Kellytown Road in Tremont, and on parcels off Route 3 in the Bar Harbor villages of Hulls Cove and Salisbury Cove, he said. Two more are planned for the island in the Mount Desert villages of Somesville and Pretty Marsh.

Kelly said other, less visually obtrusive cellphone antennas have cropped up in some of the island villages, such as one on the fire station in downtown Bar Harbor that doubles as a flagpole.

The planner told the commission that any structure that extends more than 200 feet into the air must have lighting to comply with federal aviation regulations. Nothing the park will allow will extend that high, he said, so there won’t be any effect from lights on the antennas.

“We will not compromise on preventing adverse impacts on the park’s scenic resources,” Kelly said.

In other park business, Deputy Superintendent Len Bobinchock told the commission that the park’s authorized operations budget of $7.8 million for 2012 is $462,000 less than the park’s estimated cost of operations for the year. As a result, the park’s management team has been looking into ways to reduce its spending, he told the panel.

There are many ways this might be accomplished, he said. Some of the options the park is looking into include reducing travel and training for park staff, reducing the number of seasonal employees the park hires this summer and paying for what personnel costs it can with specific project funds, rather than out of the park’s operating budget.

Bobinchock said park officials have become somewhat accustomed to finding savings one year to the next. The $7.8 million budget for 2012 is $126,000 less than the 2011 budget and $291,000 less than it was in 2010.

“Our numbers are beginning to slip,” he said. “We’ll find a way [to reduce the operations budget]. We’ve been there before.”

Bobinchock told the panel that the park is hoping to establish a shuttle service this summer between the Hulls Cove Visitor’s Center and the Jordan Pond House as a way to reduce parking and traffic congestion along the Park Loop Road near the seasonal restaurant. He said the estimated annual cost for the shuttle service is $30,000.

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