TOPSHAM — Voters will decide in November if the town should establish a retroactive ban on new cellular communications towers in the Urban Residential zone.

The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously July 15 to schedule the Nov. 2 referendum, after receiving a petition that calls for the ban.

The petition was spread by residents of the Heights neighborhood, who opposed a cell tower that was proposed for that area and ultimately rejected by the Planning Board on June 29.

The petition calls for the ban to be retroactive to April 1. Town Clerk Ruth Lyons certified the petition had 556 valid signatures, 122 more than the required 434.

While selectmen supported the cell tower prohibition language in the petition, some expressed opposition to its retroactive aspect. As a result, they voted unanimously to instruct the Planning Board to establish language for a second referendum on Nov. 2 related to cell towers in the Residential 1 zone.

That language may mirror much of the petition, but omit the retroactive prohibition.

Economic and Community Development Director John Shattuck suggested the two options for voters: one with the retroactive language and the other calling instead for a “prospective” change. He noted that the language of the original question cannot be changed, but that a new question could be added.

Shattuck said the possibility that Topsham could change its rules retroactively during the review process for a new project “could have a chilling effect on business attraction efforts or business consideration of our community.”

Selectman Don Russell said he supports the ordinance change, but he echoed Shattuck’s concern about the message the retroactive language could send.

The board weighed holding a special Town Meeting, but Russell estimated that the election would produce a turnout of at least 3,400 voters, while a special meeting might attract about a tenth as many voters.

“Because of the importance of this article, my feeling is that we give as many people in town the option to vote as possible,” he said.

Selectman Steve Edmondson echoed Russell’s comments, noting that “we want volume, we want everyone to participate, and the general election in November is the ideal venue for this, I think.”

Later in the meeting, the board also awarded a more than $99,000 contract to Harry C. Crooker & Sons to conduct the first phase of drainage improvements in the Bay Park area of town. Voters approved $123,000 for that phase at Town Meeting in May.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or [email protected].

filed under: