2016-01-21 / News

Ham radio operator asked to take down tower

City says the Biddeford resident can maintain the tower, but he needs to go through proper channels
By Ben Meiklejohn Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – A federally licensed amateur radio operator said he plans to sue the city for harassment in regards to a radio tower he was forced to remove. Adams Street resident Karl Reed said the city violated his First Amendment rights and failed to give him due process when it threatened to fine his landlord $2,500 a day if the tower was not removed.

Reed, whose FCC call number is KB1NZQ, claims that federally licensed amateur radio operators are exempt from zoning ordinances as long as the towers used are less than 35 feet in height.

“Federal laws supersede these state and zoning rules,” Reed said.

Director of Code Enforcement and Emergency Management Roby Fecteau said the exemption Reed speaks of is only an exemption to the city's telecommunications ordinance and it does not constitute an exemption from other ordinances, including permitting requirements to build structures and compliance with historical district standards.

Fecteau said FCC guidelines for amateur radio operators also require that local approval be granted.

According to city documents, at least three complaints have been filed with the city related to Reed's radio tower. On Oct. 5, Reed's neighbor, Mark Greenlaw, filed a complaint, stating, “safety of children and elderly is a concern.” Another neighbor, John Newman of Washington Street, filed a report on Oct. 9, complaining that Reed's tower was tethered by a wire to Newman's fence. A third complaint was filed on Dec. 23 by South Street resident Stephen Dow, stating Reed never obtained proper permits for the tower.

On Dec. 28, Code Enforcement and Property Maintenance Officer George Montieth sent a letter to Reed's landlords, Peter and Alice Ames of Cumberland, saying that Reed could have the tower erected only after getting approved building and electrical permits and Historic District approval.

“I inspected the property again on Dec. 24, 2015 and found the radio tower not code compliant,” Montieth wrote. “The complaints are valid; the tower is an unsafe structure. The tower is leaning towards (sic) the abutter's property on Washington Street, the base of the tower is held in place to the ground by unknown means (not inspected). The tower is tethered by cordage to the abutter's fence. There are wires/ cable attached to your building running to and attached to the abutter's fence and running through bushes. A second smaller tower has been erected attached to a plywood base.”

Montieth also wrote in the letter that the complaints would be forwarded to the FCC Enforcement Bureau for review.

Reed said Montieth visited his residence in November and did not indicate that there were any issues or violations with the tower. In a subsequent followup to Montieth’s visit, Reed said he was again told there was nothing to worry about in regards to the tower. Reed said he should have been given an opportunity to address the issue before the city starting threatening Ames with fines.

In the meantime, Reed said he has removed the antenna to appease his landlord.

Fecteau said the city ordinance defines structures as including antennas, and any construction of a structure requires a permit. Fecteau said tenants must also obtain permission from their landlord in order to obtain a permit.

Fecteau said another property in the city, 7 Green St., formerly owned by Express America, also has an antenna constructed on its rooftop that was never permitted. However, Fecteau said the antenna had been there for more than a decade and may have been erected before the city ordinance was changed to include antennas as structures that require permits. If that is the case, the antenna would be grandfathered.

The new owners of 7 Green St. however, have already contacted the code enforcement office to make sure the antenna is compliant, Fecteau added.

In his 14 years of working for the city, Fecteau said he has “seen it all” and the city tries its best to work with residents but not everybody is willing to follow the process.

“Every decision you make has to be consistent. You have to be fair across the board,” Fecteau said. “We always try to work with them. We'll work with anybody that's willing to work with us – that's our mission. At the end of the day, when you get that one person that just doesn't want to comply, then we have tools in our toolbox to help us deal with that.”

“We're not saying (Reed) can't have (the antenna), he's just got to go through the process,” Fecteau added.

Originally, said Fecteau, Reed's antenna was affixed atop the garage, but Reed removed it in August after a storm threatened it. Then the antenna was re-erected in the yard, he said.

This isn't the first time Reed has found himself battling the city in the courts.

Reed said the city once filed criminal charges against him for violating a sign ordinance but the court dismissed the case because the judge was not impressed that the city filed the suit as a criminal charge in order to avoid paying higher filing fees. Reed said the city also tried to charge him and his wife for operating a business out of their home, when in fact, they were running a nonprofit, Helping People in Need, collecting and distributing furniture to people who could not afford to buy their own.

“When we opened up a truck in front of city hall and started passing around furniture to people in need right in front of city hall, we had cops circling us all day,” Reed said. “This just shows a pattern of them trying to charge me with something … There's a heroin epidemic in the city and they're trying to shut down an old disabled man for playing on his radio.”

Reed said he is trained for emergency communications and if the grid ever went down, he could be called upon by the federal government at any time to help restore communications.

“Anytime there's a local or national emergency, we're called into service,” Reed said. “There's a lot of testing involved (to be a ham radio operator).”

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