ROCKPORT — More than a decade ago, former Rockport Town Attorney Paul Gibbons had the foresight to craft a wireless telecommunications ordinance that stipulated where in Rockport cell towers and facilities could be built, and the conditions by which their approval would be considered.
Voters approved that land use ordinance amendment, and any new cell towers were confined to an area within 1,000 feet of the top of Ragged Mountain, where a cluster of towers now sit.
This year, however, another attorney, representing U.S. Cellular, is invoking the Federal Telecommunications Act in disputing the Rockport’s regulations of where a tower is located.
It’s not an uncommon dispute as municipalities all over the country have battled in court against telecommunication giants for control of where the towers and monopoles are located on their respective landscapes. Most recently, Rockland fought, and lost against Bay Communications III LLC, the private company that erected a 120-foot tall communications tower on a plot of land (182 Camden Street), near Pizza Hut and a subdivision.
To change the course of cell tower control apparently falls to Congress to change the Federal Communications Act of 1996. In the meantime, the challenge has arrived in Rockport.
Last summer, the Rockport Planning Board in Rockport heard plans from KJK Wireless to erect a 145-foot wireless communications monopole on a wooded portion of a 25-acre lot on Vinal Street.The 25-acre parcel is owned by Kathleen Salminen Bailey, of Winthrop, who is leasing the property to KJK Wireless.
The goal, according to U.S. Cellular, is to advance its 4G LTE high-speed wireless broadband system there as part of its effort to expand and enhance wireless coverage throughout New England.
At the preapplication meeting, the Planning Board reviewed plans that showed the monopole would be 2.7 miles from the Ragged Mountain summit.
While U.S. Cellular already has a facility on Ragged Mountain, it wants better frequency and to fill in gaps for an area along Route 17 and Route 90, Vinal and South streets, Rockville and areas where there is insufficient service, wrote James Belleau, an attorney with the Auburn-based law firm of Trafton, Matzen, Belle and Frenette.
In a memo, Rockport Planning and Development Director Orion Thomas said the July 22, 2021 Planning Board meeting was informative and cordial.
- The Planning Board, however, told KJK Wireless that the town’s land use ordinance Section 804.4 prohibited cell tower construction more than 1,000 feet from the Ragged Mountain summit.
Subsequently, on Aug. 23, the town received the Belleau letter, which said the Federal Telecommunications Act does not allow municipalities to prohibit personal wireless services for voice communication, as well as transmission of data.
“In this case, the existing tower that U.S. Cellular uses on Ragged Mountain will not service the area targeted or the address gaps in coverage, leaving the creation of a new telecommunications facility in a different location as the only option for U.S. Cellular to fulfill its legal commitment to the Federal Communications Commission under its license for the Rockport area.”
Belleau proposed an ordinance amendment that adds language allowing wireless facilities in another location if the applicant can prove that such a location is necessary to provide sufficient coverage or capacity for personal wireless service in a particular area of town.
Thomas wrote in his background memo that: “A review of the Act indicates that municipalities have the ability to regulate cell towers in the normal course but cannot ‘zone them out.’”
He and Rockport Attorney Phil Saucier have proposed adding areas in Rockport that are zoned Rural Districts as potential cell tower locations.
On March 24, at a regularly scheduled Rockport Planning Board meeting, the proposed amendment will be considered during a public hearing on whether to place it before voters at annual town meeting in June.