Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Who controls cell towers at schools?

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.

Both groups are telling the truth,  according to Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor.  He says town officials do worry that legislators will take away local control,  but not because CMS or Berkley threatened to go over their heads.  Instead,  he says,  town leaders saw how the legislature voted this summer to restrict municipalities' ability to regulate billboards and speculated that the cell-tower industry could get similar action.

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.


Wiley Coyote said...

I don't think the FCC has anything to do with regulating billboards, but they do with cell towers:

...While the siting of wireless facilities is generally a local matter subject to zoning ordinances and statutes, the FCC has some rules relating to the location and construction of communications towers. For example, to ensure safe air navigation FCC rules require the registration of towers or other structures that support antennas, such as water towers or buildings, that are more than 200 feet in height or located near an airport runway. The FCC administers these requirements through the Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) system. The FCC also administers rules to ensure the construction of communications towers complies with environmental and historic preservation laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act. In addition, the FCC has provided guidance on how long a state or local government has to act on a zoning application.

Also, do a search on schools and cell towers and you'll see many groups fighting against erecting towers on school property due to EF transmissions and negative health effects.

This is an idea that needs to die a very quick death.

Anonymous said...

The phone company will simply put the tower up at the next nearest point. The emissions are still going to be close and the money will not go to CMS for the rent. Seems CMS is on a money grab again maybe Heath should call Project Lift for a grant?? Keith W. Hurley

Pamela Grundy said...

Love the way they call the giant faux trees "stealth towers."

Anonymous said...

My wife and I laugh at that cell tree nearly every time we drive down 485 past it.

We keep wondering if they'll decorate it for Christmas.

We had no idea that was near a school.

We deliberately avoided buying a house which was right next to a similar sized cell tower (without the Christmas decorations).

So has anyone checked to see if school performance on standardized tests has improved or worsened since the cell tower was erected?

Maybe (with their astute analysis of cause and effect in pedagogy) they can determine whether they need more or less cell towers next to schools.

Anonymous said...

7:38 I hope that's a joke about test scores worsening (or improving) since the cell tower went up.

We all live near cell towers, power lines, microwave ovens, etc.. I think it's a smart and innovative idea on CMS' part.

Anonymous said...

Project Cell Tower for improved test scores?

Anonymous said...

I think a cell phone attached to ones ear all day long is more dangerous than a cell phone tower. Just saying.

Anonymous said...

Drinking a bottle of pesticides is more dangerous than drinking pesticides in your water.

It's all relative, I guess.