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Lancaster town officials and residents say they are shocked to find out that a controversial communications tower has been constructed without approval from the Town Board for a building permit.

"Did you know that the cell tower is up already? It's a brand-spanking-new galvanized tower," Bowmansville resident Russ Luke said about Nextel Partners' 100-foot cellular communications tower at 6495 Transit Road.

His statement came moments before officials were prepared to approve the project's building permit during Monday's regular business meeting.

The Town Board had just directed Building Inspector Jeffrey H. Simme to require Nextel to conduct test borings before construction would begin.

According to Simme, however, board members do not have final approval on building permits, something the Town Board apparently did not know.

"In the code, it doesn't say the Town Board has final approval," Simme said Tuesday.

"Once the building department issues a building permit, construction can start, but no way would anyone in this office give anybody a permit they think the board will deny."

Once officials heard the news from Luke, they tabled the request for the building permit.

"Withdraw it until this is resolved," Councilwoman Donna G. Stempniak said Monday night. "There should be no building-permit approval until we find out what's going on."

What's going on may be a little out of the ordinary, given the chronology of events, but Nextel was not in code violation, Simme said Tuesday morning.

A building permit was issued by the building department on Feb. 1, and would have been on the Feb. 5 agenda of the Town Board with other projects, were it not for the missed deadline to submit it to the town clerk's office, Simme said.

In addition, the Feb. 19 meeting was postponed because of Presidents Day. Normally, the meeting would have been rescheduled for the next Tuesday, but board members were in New York City for the annual meeting for the New York State Association of Towns. That further delayed the routine approval of building permits by the Town Board, Simme said.

Meanwhile, on Feb. 8, the building department inspected the foundation for the tower, and it met the standard, clearing the way for construction of the tower.

"They can start before it goes to the Town Board because we have the right to let them start," Simme said. "It's not like they were trying to get away with something. They think they're ready to go."

The confusion marked another round of controversy for the Nextel tower.

Located on Lancaster Self Storage Facility property owned by local developer Joseph A. Cipolla, the project caused months of debate over where the structure should go -- on town property, private property or property owned by a neighborhood fire company.

Possible legal action against the town was another major issue. By granting Cipolla a special-use permit to erect the Nextel tower, Lancaster is setting itself up for a lawsuit, some residents have said, because town officials recently approved two other requests for the proposed site.

To protect people and property, the town's adopted a f all-zone code March 1997 that prohibits constructing building within the area surrounding a tower equivalent to the tower's height. But in October, officials issued a variance, eliminating the requirement for the site.

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