Ruling by code officer sidetracks tower plan

LITCHFIELD – Whether a new cell tower is built on church-owned land may hinge on an argument over the authority of the town’s code enforcement officer.

The Tabernacle Baptist Church wants to lease a portion of its Route 102 property to a New Jersey communications company to erect a 140-foot cell phone tower. Some neighbors object and claim code enforcement officer Kevin Lynch overstepped his bounds when he ruled the rear of the property contains a drainage swale, not a wetland.

Lynch’s decision – which came after a site walk of the property and reversed an earlier one based on town maps – means the church and the company, BCI Communications, don’t need a zoning variance.

On Wednesday, Kevin and Susan Powers submitted an application to the Zoning Board of Adjustment appealing Lynch’s decision and claiming a wetlands expert, not Lynch, should make the determination whether the area is a wetland.

“Basically, we’re saying it wasn’t his call to make,” Susan Powers said, “and he shouldn’t have had the authority to say it isn’t a wetland.”

The couple’s application refers to a town zoning rule that says the Conservation Commission will only rule a wetlands map is incorrect based on the evaluation of a wetlands scientist using on-site investigation.

The couple also points to the meeting minutes of other land-use boards that refer to the area as a wetland.

On Wednesday, the ZBA only accepted the Powers’ application. It will hold a hearing on the matter at its next meeting, Sept. 8.

The church debated for two years whether to make its land available for such a use, according to Tabernacle Baptist business manager David Payne. It decided to go forward with the plan but to only allow a flag pole-style design to reduce aesthetic concerns.

The tower would resemble one near the David Deane Skatepark in Nashua.

But the Powers, who live at 10 Cutler Road, and Bob Maslanka, another abutter, still think the tower will negatively affect their neighborhood. Kevin Powers is also worried that once the tower is approved, more antennas will be installed, creating more of an eyesore.

“What happened to love thy neighbor’s backyard?” he said. “Once this thing takes root, they’re going to start renting out antennas to other companies. That’s one thing that bugs me: It’s a revenue stream.”

Tabernacle Baptist will receive revenue for the tower, Payne said, but any antennas on it would be housed inside the structure. The tower will essentially be a very tall pole, he said.

Initially, the church and BCI applied to the ZBA for a zoning variance because Lynch ruled the pole would have sat within a 50-foot wetland buffer. Following a site walk, Lynch said the area is actually a drainage swale built in the 1970s, so a variance was not necessary.

Based on Lynch’s new ruling, the ZBA decided it no longer had the authority to rule on the application, and the church and BCI Communications withdrew it.

The Powers’ appeal puts the matter back before the ZBA.

If the ZBA denies the Powers’ application or accepts it but still grants the zoning variance, the tower still would need to be approved by the town Planning Board.

If approved, Tabernacle Baptist will not be the only local church to have generated money from a cell phone tower. In 1999, the Community Church of Hudson entered a 20-year lease with a telecommunications company to have a 70-foot tower installed inside the church’s steeple.

Kevin Powers said he was told the Tabernacle Baptist Church’s steeple is too small for a similar arrangement.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or