When Don Day needs to use his cellphone, he heads upstairs to the front bedroom of his Scarborough home. It’s the only place the salesman can make business calls – and only if he’s getting reception that day.
“The cellphone is a way of life today. I do everything on it,” Day said. “I’ll try to call customers and the call is dropped or they can’t hear me.”
It’s a common problem in Scarborough, where large sections of the town have less than adequate coverage. Town officials have spent the past year considering how to address the issue, but it’s no simple task. While many residents want better coverage, others worry that new towers near residential neighborhoods could cause health problems and lower property values.
The Town Council will vote Aug. 20 on proposed zoning changes that would allow towers in more areas and reduce those coverage gaps. The Ordinance Committee will also discuss the issue on Aug. 13 and may propose changes before the final council vote.
At the same time, however, other residents are preparing to oppose changes that they feel would allow towers too close to residential areas.
“We really believe (the towers) are commercial and industrial facilities and that’s why they’re zoned now for industrial areas,” said Elisa Boxer, a resident who said she is getting signatures on a petition in support of restrictions.
Scarborough isn’t the only local community grappling with how to improve cellphone coverage without putting towers where they aren’t wanted.
In neighboring Cape Elizabeth, for example, residents have talked for years about large coverage gaps, mainly around Fort Williams, Delano Park and Broad Cove.
“We always tell people to raise your right foot and put your arm in the air and see what you can get for coverage,” said Police Chief Neil Williams, who said the level of coverage often depends on what carrier people use.
Cape Elizabeth rejected a plan to put wireless communication equipment on an old water tower on Avon Road after residents objected.
Verizon Wireless argued that the tower was needed to address a coverage gap, but residents said it would create noise, lower property values, increase traffic and have a negative visual impact on the neighborhood. Now, Verizon Wireless is suing the town, alleging that its Zoning Board of Appeals erred when it denied the company a permit.
In Scarborough, the town hired a consultant who identified areas west of the Maine Turnpike and some coastal sections as having little or no cell coverage. A report from the consultant also outlined 11 potential areas for towers that would largely address those coverage gaps, Town Manager Tom Hall said.
The Ordinance Committee has spent much of the past year looking at the issue and, after analyzing coverage gaps, recommended amending the zoning ordinance to allow new wireless towers outside the industrial zone, the only area in which they are currently allowed. The proposed changes also increase the maximum tower heights from 100 feet to 150 feet and allow multiple cellphone companies to use the same towers.
Hall said the Town Council gave preliminary approval to the changes in June. After a public hearing last week during which about 10 residents voiced concerns about putting towers near neighborhoods, councilors sent the plan back to the Ordinance Committee. Hall said the committee likely will look at changing the proposal to “be a little more specific about which areas of town where towers might be allowed.”
“People appreciate the need in society for good, consistent cellphone coverage, yet there are some challenges in terms of placement,” Hall said. “I don’t think anyone wants a town littered with towers.”
Jean Marie Caterina, a town councilor, said she has heard some of those same concerns from people in Scarborough, but also sees a need for better coverage. She has spotty coverage at her own house, and often has dropped calls when she is in other parts of town.
“I hear from people throughout town that they can’t get coverage,” she said. “It’s a safety issue and it’s a business issue.”
Caterina, who is on the Ordinance Committee, said she is fine with the committee taking another look at the proposed changes because “it is clear it is too broad and the Planning Board will need more rules” to work with as it considers approving new towers.
Day, the salesman who gets reception only in one room of his Fairway Drive house, said he feels the poor coverage negatively affects his property value and presents a safety issue in town. He said younger home buyers don’t want to purchase houses in areas with no cellphone coverage because they often don’t have landlines.
“When I’m out driving and I should get in an accident or see someone in distress, I want to be able to call police for help,” Day said.
Boxer, who lives in the Pleasant Hill area, said she is among a group of residents who are concerned not only about the effect of towers on health and property values, but also with the way the town is addressing the issue.
“It’s just a really backwards way of doing it, to create a blanket zoning change that would allow multiple towers,” she said.
Boxer, who recognizes the need for better coverage, said she is not opposed to allowing higher towers in rural ares, but is concerned about putting them near densely populated neighborhoods. She said she has already collected more than 100 signatures on a petition that says its supporters are not willing to risk increased cancer rates and decreased property values for better coverage. She plans to submit the petition to town officials.
“I think they’re looking at a humongous fight on their hands if they do it in this broad way,” she said.