OTISFIELD — The fate of a plan by U.S. Cellular to construct a 180-foot telecommunications tower on Scribner Hill now rests with the Oxford County Superior Court.
The Board of Appeals on Thursday night turned down an appeal by The Friends of Scribner Hill, which is contesting the Planning Board's findings of fact. The findings of fact document was developed by order of the court to verify its approval of a permit to U.S. Cellular for the tower.
The testimony and results of the Appeals Board hearing will now be turned over to Justice Robert Clifford to decide whether the action against the town and U.S. Cellular by The Friends of Scribner Hill has merit.
The Appeals Board said the Planning Board's decision was “neither clearly contrary” to the specific provisions of the telecommunication ordinance nor "unsupported by substantial evidence” in the record.
The unanimous decision was made after nearly three hours of testimony by The Friends of Scribner Hill, U.S. Cellular, town officials and the public at the East Otisfield Community Hall on Route 121.
It has been 11 months since the Planning Board approved the permit for the tower, which would hold equipment for cellular phone companies and the Otisfield fire and highway departments.
Since then, The Friends of Scribner Hill and others have filed four appeals, three with the Appeals Board and one with Oxford County Superior Court in Paris. The complaints to the Appeals Board said, among other matters, that planners did not follow town ordinance and the comprehensive plan in making their decision. The first two appeals were also denied.
The appeal to the court, which took over the case in the summer, asked that the court send the case back to planners for a full hearing.
Once again Thursday, The Friends of Scribner Hill insisted they were not against a cell tower but opposed the methods and procedures used to grant the permit.
“The code enforcement officer, Planning Board and Appeals Board mistakenly or intentionally decided to disregard all or some of the (telecommunications) ordinance,” John Poto testified to the Appeals Board.
Among the issues Poto addressed was the lack of proper notification of abutters, the Planning Board's failure to meet some criteria set in the town's telecommunications ordinance and the board's failure to address citizens' concerns.
While much of the testimony given Thursday night had been heard before, Kristen Roy, who also spoke on behalf of The Friends of Scribner Hill, focused in part on the location of the tower. She said Poland residents on Thompson Lake appear to be the primary beneficiaries of the tower.
“In order for U.S. Cellular to close their last major service gap in Poland, the easiest and most cost effective way to do this is to put a tower on Scribner Hill,” she said. She said others, including town officials, have called for better communications capability in the Bolsters Mill area, but that area was not considered in the application process.
She blamed the code enforcement officer, Planning Board and Board of Selectmen, saying each had failed to perform due diligence for the town and safeguarding the public safety and interest in preserving he community's character.
Selectman Rick Micklon challenged her assertions, saying the tower was a “direct site line” application and that everyone will benefit from the improved communications.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Hal Ferguson said the bottom line was simple. U.S. Cellular met the requirements of the town's telecommunications ordinance.
“We have an ordinance. If you meet the ordinance (requirements) you pass. If you don't like the ordinance change it. Simple,” he said.
Ferguson said he believes the ordinance has to be “fixed” and has proposed that a public hearing be held after the new year to review it. But he cautioned that until the ordinance is changed, any application will be grandfathered under the existing ordinance.
The 13-page telecommunications ordinance approved in 1999 lays out everything from the application requirements to documentation on whether the project has any adverse effect on scenic resources, historic resources, tower color, landscaping and other items.
“I only pray and hope that before someone loses their life because of inadequate communication, we have a cell tower,” he said.
The town is working with limited communications because the broadband system was replaced with a narrow band system last year, restricting two-way radio communication for the fire and highway departments.
U.S. Cellular representative Bob Gashlin said very little during the hearing, except to challenge ascertains by The Friends of Scribner Hill that other towns require site plan review and other criteria in their permit process. Gashlin said various towns have different requirements.
A decision on the matter by Oxford County Superior Court is expected soon.