OTISFIELD — Almost two years after the town’s first and only cell tower application erupted in a bitter legal battle between residents and officials, the committee charged with revising the town’s wireless telecommunications ordinance has completed its work.

The Ordinance Policy Review Committee formally accepted the final draft of the Wireless Telecommunications Facility Ordinance on Thursday night and has forwarded it to the Board of Selectmen.

“A lot of people worked very hard,” committee Chairman Joseph Zilinsky said Friday. “We never got a checklist of what was needed to be fixed. There was no agenda.” 

He told people at the start of the process in September 2013 to leave whatever prejudices they had at the door and they got down to work, he said.

Selectmen are expected to send the document to the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments in Auburn, the Maine Municipal Association legal department and the town’s attorney for review. It will then go to a public hearing and from there to the annual town meeting in June.

Additionally, the Board of Selectmen will submit a separate warrant article requesting elimination of the Board of Appeals process in any future wireless communication tower application. The board, which approved the measure unanimously at Wednesday night’s meeting, said it will not only expedite the appeal process, but reduce legal costs for the town by sending an appeal directly to Superior Court.

If approved, the article would not eliminate the Board of Appeals for most other matters that go before the Planning Board and the code enforcement officer, Selectmen Chairman Hal Ferguson said.

The revised ordinance and the request to do away with the Board of Appeals process are the direct result of a more than yearlong battle over the application by U.S. Cellular in 2012 to install a 180-foot communications tower on Scribner Hill.

In May 2013, nearly 16 months after the Planning Board approved the application that officials say would have accommodated equipment for cellphone companies and the town’s Fire Department, U.S. Cellular decided not to build the tower.

Otisfield spent nearly $50,000 to defend itself against legal action by a grass-roots group of residents known as the Friends of Scribner Hill. The group legally challenged the permitting process for the application.

The legal issue died when U.S. Cellular withdrew its application and the Oxford County Superior Court dismissed the case as moot.

Ferguson said the appeal stalled the entire process by five or six months and cost the town thousands of dollars to litigate. 

Friends of Scribner Hill members said the Board of Appeals made mistakes and violated the town ordinance. While selectmen did not agree with that, they and others did agree that the wireless communications ordinance had faults and needed to be revised.

Cell tower opponents eventually agreed to work with the town to help revise parts of the Wireless Telecommunications Facility Ordinance.

Zilinsky said some members of Friends of Scribner Hill attended each meeting and made significant contributions to the discussion.

The new document does not require cross-referencing to other town ordinances. It also allows the Planning Board to seek outside independent help for issues beyond its expertise and asks applicants to clearly state why they need to be in a specific location.

While it does not reduce the maximum height of 180 feet tower, it does require the applicant to explain why it needs to be at that height and to investigate if it can co-locate on another tower.

Selectman and Ordinance Policy Review Committee member Len Adler said there are also changes in the notification process, something that was challenged by the Friends of Scribner Hill during the U.S. Cellular debate.

Adler said the revised ordinance requires measuring from the perimeter of the facility, not the property line, for developing a list of who needs to be notified of an application. For example, if a three-acre cell tower facility is sited on a 500-acre property, the distance for notification is measured from the facility perimeter, not the edge of the 500-acre property line.

The committee used language from the Maine Municipal Association and the cell tower ordinance of the well-established town of Raymond in its revised ordinance.

Selectman Rick Micklon, who along with Ferguson, attended the meetings over the past year, said the major change was making the ordinance a stand-alone document.

“It was a long and tedious process,” Zilinsky said. “We went line by line. We could have gone on forever, but we felt this is the best we could do.” 

Although the town has an improved communications system in the north section of town after a repeater was placed on Norway’s Frost Hill communications tower in 2013, there is still no way to communicate with Oxford County during an emergency in other areas of town.

A recent house fire off Route 121, for example, required a person to stand on Route 121 to use the emergency truck’s radio to communicate because there was no way to communicate using portable radios on site.

“We had no communication,” said Ferguson, who added it was not an isolated case.

Ferguson said there have been no serious inquiries from wireless communications companies about placing a tower in Otisfield since the Scribner Hill application was pulled.

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