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Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, July 3, 2014
Stonington selectmen secure water infrastructure funding, debate potential cell tower sites

by Rich Hewitt

The Stonington Water Company is gearing up for several projects designed to improve the water system infrastructure, and to pay for the project, selectmen have signed documents formally accepting a federal Rural Development grant/loan package totaling $1.2 million. The projects were topics of discussion at the June 23 and 30 meetings of the board of selectmen.

The package includes a $443,000 grant and a loan of $757,000 from Camden National. The bank’s bid, the lowest of three received, agreed to provide the loan at an interest rate of .83 percent.

The much needed repairs include new monitoring equipment at the water storage tank and at the wells, upgrades to the electrical and chemical feeder systems at the pump house, repairing or replacing hydrants that are not working and replacing the water lines on Highland Avenue.

“We know there are leaks up there; we can hear them,” Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris said. “But with all the ledge up in that area, they are so hard to find.”

Crews under the direction of Olver Associates, the Winterport-based company that manages the water company, will begin well testing on July 14 to measure their capacity to produce water for the system.

According to Billings-Pezaris, many of the wells have not been used in years, so they may require flushing and possibly repairs.

Meanwhile, survey crews from Olver are already busy marking the location of existing water lines in preparation for the start of major work on the water system.

In a related matter, water company directors discussed the possibility of seeking an easement across property owned by David and Selectman Evelyn Duncan to provide access to the wells and water lines during the project. The Duncans gave the water company an easement on a portion of their property where the company’s wells are located. The main transmission line from the pump house to the standpipe also runs across Duncan land as the result of a separate easement.

The easement would be done in conjunction with another one being sought by a company that may install a cell tower to provide cell phone service to the downtown area. For that project to work, the town will need to grant an easement to the company across a portion of the town-owned Woodland Cemetery, and the Duncans would provide a separate easement over their property which runs up to the back boundary of the cemetery.

At this point, all of the easement issues are still in the discussion stage.

Cell tower easement a conflict of interest?

The Duncan land is one of two sites reviewed by selectmen last week as potential spots for the cell tower. The second is a parcel owned by Tony Ramos where the water company standpipe is located. So far, Ramos has not responded to contacts from the town office and the cell tower company regarding a lease on his property.

The Duncan property is owned by David Duncan, the husband of Selectman Evelyn Duncan, who said that she and her husband had not spoken to the outfit. Evelyn Duncan indicated that her husband was concerned about the visual impact of a tower in that area, but that he was also interested in ensuring that the downtown area has access to cell phone service.

“It doesn’t make any difference to us,” Selectman Duncan said. “We’re only interested if it’s a benefit to the town.”

Selectman Ben Barrows raised the question of the appearance of a conflict of interest because a member of the board of selectmen would benefit from the cell tower lease. Even though the property is in her husband’s name, Barrows said there might be the perception of a conflict.

Billings-Pezaris said the Duncans had not sought out the cell tower company seeking to lease the property. It was the company that selected the two properties.

“This is what they do,” she said. “They take the information and run it through their software and it picks out a site.”

Billings-Pezaris has been working with the interested cell tower company, which at this point does not wish to be identified, to locate suitable sites. Due to site restrictions included in the town’s cell tower ordinance and the height needed to provide a signal to the town, these are the only two properties that are suitable, Billings-Pezaris told selectmen.

The Duncan-owned parcel in question is a large parcel that runs from the vicinity of Burnt Pond up behind the cemetery. The Duncans have previously granted easements to the water company that have allowed it to sink a number of wells on the land and to run a line to the standpipe.

The reason the land was under discussion by selectmen was the need for the town to provide the easement through the cemetery to provide access to the Duncan property. Although no one raised objections to an easement, Chris Betts suggested that they were getting ahead of themselves and that the unnamed cell tower company needed a lease for the site before the selectmen could consider an easement.

“Before they look for an easement, they’re going to need to negotiate with Dave Duncan,” he said.

If the project moves forward and the selectmen agree, the question of granting the easement would have to go to voters, probably at a special town meeting. If all went well, construction could begin on the tower late this fall or early in the winter.