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Withdrawn application for small-cell wireless antennas prompts town to re-examine ordinance, policies

Verizon has withdrawn an application to place "small cell" wireless antennas in a neighborhood near Crescent Beach, but it has prompted town officials to prepare for something they see as inevitable

The Town Council on March 13, 2017 voted to refer to workshop a staff request to review town policies on siting wireless equipment. [Memo] Councilors were also asked to direct the Planning Board to review related ordinance provisions, but councilors said they first want to learn more about the new technology.

"I think this is an opportunity for us to get into the weeds with this and be a lot more familiar with what we're talking about before we even send it to the Planning Board for their thoughts, because I think this is a big policy decision," said Councilor Jessica Sullivan.

Improved cell-phone coverage for Cape Elizabeth was on the council's list of goals for 2015, and 100-percent coverage was a goal for 2016. Staff is also asking how these goals should jibe with potential policy and ordinance revisions.

Verizon was looking to install small cells on an existing utility pole at the end of Richmond Terrace. Town Manager Matthew Sturgis described a small cell as a box placed on a pole, with equipment that would extend the pole 5-10 feet. The antennas boost coverage in areas served by nearby towers, at lower cost than building additional towers.

The Zoning Ordinance currently allows cell-phone equipment on towers within an overlay zone, or on alternate tower structures (such as a church steeple) that conceal the equipment. "This (application) failed the concealment question," Sturgis said. Consequently the Verizon request was referred to the Planning Board, but Sturgis said future applications could be overwhelming. "Each time one comes in are they going to be referred to the Planning Board?" he asked.

Sullivan said she also foresees multiple applications for small cells around town. She agreed that the town needs better coverage, but, "I don't know how much of a span (small cells) have, how much coverage they actually bring," she said. "I would like to be a lot more comfortable with what this is and what these things could potentially be throughout town," Sullivan said.

Council Chair Jamie Garvin suggested inviting local network developers to help get the council smarter about wireless technology. The workshop will likely happen in May, after the council reviews and adopts the 2017-18 budget.

Sturgis said the town had received four or five emails from Richmond Terrace neighbors saying they were uncomfortable with the Verizon proposal.