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Developer Plans Appeal After Thornton Rejects Proposed Cell Tower on Sununu-Owned Land

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Officials in the town of Thornton have rejected a proposed cell tower on land owned by Gov. Chris Sununu’s family at the edge of the White Mountain National Forest.

The project site is on Cone Mountain, below the popular Welch-Dickey hiking trail. Massachusetts-based developer Vertex has eyed it for a 170-foot-tall lattice-style cell tower, first proposed last year.

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Vertex told NHPR on Friday that they will appeal the town’s rejection, likely in court.

The town’s decision came as a surprise to neighbors who’d opposed the project.

Hundreds of people signed a petition last year arguing the tower was unnecessary and would mar views from and of the National Forest, among other potential impacts.

At a meeting Thursday, the Thornton Planning Board agreed. Board member Frank Freeman was among those who said mild issues with local cell service didn’t justify the safety and environmental concerns that the project raised.

“I’m having a problem accepting that the major tower structure that this application proposes is either warranted or is the appropriate solution to the coverage deficiencies,” he said. “I wonder if perhaps another far less intrusive and less impactful solution would be appropriate."

The board is required to send the developer a written reason for the rejection within five days, with an appeal expected after that.

The decision came after Thornton’s zoning board of appeals supported the project and granted it a variance, citing particular concerns about cell coverage for emergency service providers on one local road.

Neighbors, who’d disputed that argument, were “delighted” by the planning board’s reversal.

“I’m still in a little bit of a state of shock,” said Jeremy Duffield, who lives on a cul-de-sac adjacent to the proposed tower site. “The democratic process seems to have worked.”

But with an appeal of the rejection in the works, Duffield said he and his neighbors will continue to pursue a Superior Court lawsuit they filed over the earlier zoning board decision. Thornton filed a motion to dismiss that suit earlier this week.

Meanwhile, both the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission have looked into the project at neighbors’ request.

The FAA determined the tower would pose no hazard to air travel, according to documents provided to NHPR, and the FCC said Vertex would have to complete required environmental reviews only if the town approved the project.

The land for the tower site is owned by a realty trust that the Sununu family manages, and in which their holdings company has a partial stake.

James Sununu, one of the governor’s brothers, previously told NHPR that Vertex approached them about the project last year. He also said the project wasn’t intended to benefit the nearby Waterville Valley ski area, which the family also owns.

The tower would be covered by Thornton’s Opportunity Zone designation, which could make the project and its backers eligible for special tax benefits if it moves forward.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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