As parents at Elizabeth Lane Elementary learned that plans were afoot to put a cell tower at their school, they heard that Matthews town officials feared a vote against the tower would just bring an override from Raleigh.
Officials from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the Berkley Group, who are working together on the cell-tower plan, insist they've never talked about taking their case to state lawmakers.
Thus, he says, town commissioners are trying to craft a strategy "to be in control of our own destiny," including decisions about whether a 120-foot tower should go at the edge of the Elizabeth Lane property.
The process has turned into a juggling act for all involved. Assistant Superintendent Guy Chamberlain says CMS has always been committed to bring cell-tower proposals to school families and neighbors before signing a lease. The district's goal, he says, is to get some extra revenue from land that's not being used for classrooms, playgrounds or parking lots.
The plans haven't gone to Elizabeth Lane families yet because it isn't even on CMS' list of identified sites, Chamberlain said. The Berkley group was interested in the site,but until Monday, Matthews didn't allow towers over 80 feet tall in residential/institutional districts, which include Elizabeth Lane and four other CMS schools. Berkley wants 120-foot towers. If town commissioners had said no to the change, the Elizabeth Lane plan would have been off the table.
|Robinson's cell-phone "tree"|
But when families heard that a proposed zoning change and a petition for the Elizabeth Lane tower were on Monday's agenda, they started looking at the documents. They saw detailed plans, including a "fall zone" that indicated the tower could land on the school track and play area if it toppled. They realized real trees and shrubs that shelter their school from a busy road could be torn down for a phony cell-phone "tree" like the one Berkley built on the grounds of nearby J.M. Robinson Middle School. They believed approval was imminent and thought they'd been sandbagged by CMS.
Meanwhile, Taylor says, he and commissioners were hearing from concerned families and planning their strategy. They could say no to 120-foot towers, he said, but feared that might lead the state to step in. Approval, on the other hand, would force tower plans to get town approval. So the board approved the change on a split vote.
Next up was a vote to accept Berkley's petition for approval of the Elizabeth Lane tower. The town attorney said there's no choice: A petition has to be accepted, launching a process that includes a public hearing on the proposal. Even so, Taylor said, Commissioner Kress Query insisted on pulling it off the consent agenda, and Query and Suzanne Gulley voted against the petition as a symbolic act.
So far, Chamberlain says, turnout for tower meetings has been light. That seems likely to change as the Elizabeth Lane plan moves ahead. Parent Kelly Stienecker says families will keep emailing CMS officials and speak to the school board about their concerns.
"Our school is very organized," she said, "and we're a tight-knit group of parents."
Update: Expect a long wait for resolution on the Elizabeth Lane question. Paul Bailey, a school board candidate who's also Matthews mayor pro tem, told the school board Tuesday that if there are any objections to the tower at the November hearing, the town will schedule a second hearing to take place after new board members are sworn in, probably in January. And Chamberlain said CMS will launch its review and discussion process only if Matthews officials give their approval.