Machias Neighbors and Officials Blindsided By Downtown Cell Tower Plans

The Clark Perry House, seen here c. 1890, is an elaborate Victorian home built by lumber baron Clark Perry in 1868. Perry was known for his love of horses, and the majority of the block where his former home stands was originally his horse track. The home was later owned by Emma Means, proprietress of the Machias Colonial Theater. U.S. Cellular plans to construct a 100’ cell tower next to the 48’ home, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo courtesy Beehive Design Collective)

By Sarah Craighead 

Dedmon

 

A public notice in this newspaper on March 21 was the first announcement that a cell phone company intends to build a 100-foot cell tower between North and Court Streets in downtown Machias. The tower would stand on the back end of property owned by the Community of Christ Church.

“All interested persons are invited to comment on any potential effects that may be caused to historic properties from proposed 100-foot tall monopole telecommunications tower to be located off North Street, Machias, ME, if any such properties are located at or near the site,” reads the notice.

Stassi D. Cramm, Presiding Bishop of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints signed the lease with U.S Cellular on Jan. 17. Abutting homeowners have not been made aware of the planned cell tower construction by representatives of the church or by U.S. Cellular. General counsel for the Community of Christ Church returned a phone call from their headquarters in Missouri but declined to answer questions.

Town unprotected

Machias Town Manager Christina Therrien said that she began researching the regulations surrounding downtown tower construction when she received a permit application from U.S. Cellular on Tuesday, March 20. She learned that Machias has no legal right to give feedback on the proposal or offer alternative locations because the town has no telecommunications ordinance.

According to lawyers for the Maine Municipal Association, when a town does not have a these steps for a review process ready, anyone may construct a cell phone tower within the city limits without a building permit or public hearing.

Lawyers for U.S. Cellular’s representatives have requested the town now refund the $155 permit fee submitted with their application. The company’s cost estimate for the tower is listed as $228,000, and construction will be done by Portland Construction Services of Scarborough. 

Machias Code Enforcement Officer Betsy Fitzgerald said that she reached out to lawyers representing U.S Cellular last week when she learned of the intended build. Fitzgerald asked the company to notify the abutting homeowners in writing and to consider holding a public meeting so that the town could learn more and weigh in on the proposed build. 

“I think people have an innate right to comment on what may be in their backyard, or their next door neighbor’s yard,” said Fitzgerald. “I think it’s a courtesy.”

U.S. Cellular signaled that they are not required to comply but might be willing to set up an informational meeting with the Machias Planning Board, which would be open to the public.  If such a meeting is scheduled, concerns and recommendations from the Board and local citizens would be heard, but U.S. Cellular is not legally obligated to take them into consideration.

In an email interview with U.S. Cellular Senior Project Manager David Sharp, Sharp was asked what U.S. Cellular would do if a build at the proposed location was unwelcome by the town and the neighborhood. “We expect the building permit to be issued because we have complied with all legal requirements,” wrote Sharp. 

Section 106

However, U.S. Cellular is required to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers the construction of any communications tower using FCC-licensed spectrum a federal undertaking.  

Section 106 of the act requires Federal agencies, or corporations using Federal dollars, to consider adverse effects to nearby historic properties. Most relevant to the placement of the downtown cell tower is the adverse effect of “introduction of incompatible visual, atmospheric or audible elements” as well as “change in the character of the property’s use or setting.” 

Therrien said she will reach out to the appropriate parties this week to initiate this “Section 106 Review.” 

The proposed build site is directly adjacent to the Clark Perry House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and within one to two blocks of seven other registered historic buildings including the Burnham Tavern, the Washington County Courthouse, Washington County Jail, Porter Memorial Library, Centre Street Congregational Church and the Old Post Office & Customs House. Machias has a total of nine historic properties on the registry. 

The neighboring Clark Perry House is the former home of Emma Means, the proprietor of the beloved Colonial Theater. This Victorian home, built in 1868, was placed on the registry in 1979 and is considered one of Washington County’s most elaborate examples of Italianate architecture.  The building was purchased by the Beehive Design Collective in 2005 and has been undergoing extensive restoration work funded entirely by donations for the non-profit organization’s artwork.  

Beehive founder Kehben Grier said she has been shocked and grief-stricken since she heard of the impending cell tower in their backyard. “The location of this industrial tower smack in the center of town, surrounded by a fragile residential neighborhood and Machias’ small handful of registered historic assets is predatory. It’s a heedless mistake and a deep insult to this community.”

Grier said her research shows that cell towers typically degrade abutting property values by 20 percent or more, which will lower Machias’ tax revenue. It is not yet known whether U.S. Cellular will be required to pay personal property or property taxes on the installation. 

“The answer to the problem is simple. It absolutely must go elsewhere,” said Grier, who has now begun curating a Facebook page for community response called “Wrong Spot.”

“I’m pleased that Machias could gain improved cell service downtown, but I’d like to see U.S, Cellular explore a site more remote from our beautiful downtown,” said Machias Selectman Bill Kitchen. “It would be sad if the first thing you now see coming over College Hill is a cell tower, and not our picturesque and historic skyline.”

“We have reached out to U.S. Cellular in an attempt to engage them in a conversation, alerting them to our sensitivities and our willingness to try to find a solution that is favorable for all parties,” said Kitchen.