Weld board approves building permit for cell tower

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The location of the proposed tower.

WELD – The Planning Board approved a building permit for a proposed cell tower Wednesday evening, at a meeting held through Zoom.

As proposed by AT&T, the 190-foot tower would be installed off Route 142 on land leased by the company. In addition to the tower, the project consists of a concrete pad, a walk-in cabinet containing equipment and a generator, all surrounded by a chain-link fence. The company’s representatives say that the tower will fill in cell phone service gaps for AT&T customers in the area. Once constructed, other carriers could approach the company and lease space for their own equipment.

The project has sparked significant discussion in Weld, much of it relating to the tower’s impact on the region’s scenic appeal. At Wednesday’s meeting, residents suggested demonstrating the visual impact through a balloon float test, holding a public hearing on the matter or potentially relocating the tower nearer to the wind turbines presently located on Saddleback Ridge. Several people specifically objected to the tower’s proposed location in the Center Hill viewshed, pointing to the area’s economic dependence on tourism.

On Wednesday, the Planning Board members pointed to the town’s lack of land use or zoning ordinance that could regulate the construction of cell towers. Instead, the project only required a building permit from Weld due to the tower being in excess of 10 feet in height. Following previous meetings, the board sought advice from the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments and the law firm Bernstein Shur. According to that advice, board member Nancy Stowell said Wednesday, the project was in compliance with the town’s building ordinance and the board had no reason to not grant the application.

“We just have a lousy, outdated ordinance,” Stowell said.

All four of the members of the board present – Stowell, Chair Naomi Doughty, Ernestine Hutchinson and Thomas Wheeler – voted to approve the application early in the meeting. That motion was followed by roughly an hour and a half of residents asking questions and voicing concerns about the project, which will next move to seek state approval and an environmental review by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Fire Chief Corey Hutchinson asked a number of questions relating to public safety, including about whether the town would be able to attach its own equipment to the tower to improve public safety-related communication in the area. Peter Marchant, representing AT&T, said that the tower would be reserving space for the town’s equipment.

Residents suggested that developers consider relocating the tower onto Saddleback Ridge, near preexisting wind turbines. That location was in Carthage, where there was a preexisting tower, AT&T’s representatives said, and wasn’t part of the company’s proposal to bring coverage to Weld. Tom Small, also representing AT&T, said that the specific site selected in Weld had been chosen due to its ability to meet service coverage requirements.

If the lease was terminated or expired, all aboveground structures would need to be removed within 120 days, Marchant said in response to a question.

People speaking against the project pointed to the ‘Commercial and Industrial Structures’ article in the town’s building ordinance that indicates that proposed structures shall relate “harmoniously to the terrain,” as well as language in a deed that refers to a right-of-way as being conveyed for “non-commercial purposes” and only for a single family dwelling. The board’s legal review, however, determined that AT&T’s application was in compliance with the town’s building ordinance.

Planning Board member Thomas Wheeler suggested that the board had a lot of ordinance-related work ahead of itself. “We don’t have zoning, those types of things,” Wheeler said, calling it a weakness in the town’s ordinances. “Really, our hands are tied at this time.”

Stowell noted that the board’s decision could be appealed. Per the town’s ordinance, such an appeal would be heard by the town’s Board of Appeals. Following that board’s ruling, any party could further appeal the decision to Superior Court.

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