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Cell towers at CMS schools: Boon or bane?

CELLTOWER_02
DAVIE HINSHAW - THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER
This cell tower disguised as a very tall tree on the grounds of J.M. Robinson Middle School is the first of several slated for CMS schools.

A low-key push to put 120-foot cell towers on the campuses of nine Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools is drawing debate, as some families from Elizabeth Lane Elementary protest what they fear would be an ugly and unsafe addition.

“Why is CMS in the cellphone business?” asked Kelly Stienecker, parent of two students at Elizabeth Lane. Children, she said, “don’t belong under cellphone towers to learn and play.”

CMS officials decided last year to work with the Berkley Group, a Charlotte-based tower company, to lease unused space on school grounds for towers. The district already had towers that went up several years ago at Providence High and Quail Hollow Middle, and the first new one went up last spring at J.M. Robinson Middle.

Other schools under consideration are Ardrey Kell High; Community House Middle; Croft, Elon Park and Sharon elementary schools; and the grounds of the CMS Leadership Academy in the “Governor’s Village” cluster of schools in northeast Charlotte.

Assistant Superintendent Guy Chamberlain and Bonnie Newell, managing partner with Berkley, say the company identified areas where coverage is poor and new towers are needed.

Newell said heavy use of phones and other electronic communication, by everyone from schoolchildren to emergency responders, drives the need for more towers. In Matthews, where Elizabeth Lane is located, use is “exceptionally, exceptionally heavy, and need is exceptionally strong,” Newell said.

Monday night, Matthews town commissioners cleared the way for a public hearing on the Elizabeth Lane tower. Mayor Jim Taylor emphasized Tuesday that the decisions to allow 120-foot towers – up from the previous limit of 80 feet – and to launch the process for reviewing the Elizabeth Lane request do not mean approval will be automatic. Instead, he said, the process is intended to give local officials control over what’s allowed.

A hearing on the Elizabeth Lane tower will be set in November, Taylor said.

Pros and cons

Chamberlain said CMS decided to pursue the tower leases as a way to make money. The lease approved Aug. 27 for Myers Park High calls for Berkley Group to pay CMS $22,200 a year to lease a 100-by-100-foot space. Payments might vary slightly by school, he said, but will be in that range.

Money raised from cell-tower leases must go toward improving school buildings and grounds and cannot be spent for such operating expenses as hiring staff or buying school supplies, Chamberlain said. The district hasn’t decided how to spend the money.

“For the time being, it’s just going in the bank,” he said. “Eventually it will start to add up.”

CMS and Berkley hold meetings for school families and neighborhoods before signing a lease and moving forward with towers.

Kathleen Fox, principal of Robinson Middle, says there have been no problems with the tower on that campus, in the south suburban Ballantyne area. The city of Charlotte requires “stealth towers,” designed to blend into the landscape. Robinson’s is disguised, though not very convincingly, as a 120-foot pine tree towering over the schoolyard.

Chamberlain said CMS “suspended” action on towers at Croft in north Charlotte and Ardrey Kell in south Charlotte after hearing concerns about appearance and fear about health effects. The district may try again to come up with a plan, he said.

“As far as we’re concerned, there’s not a health issue,” Chamberlain said.

The American Cancer Society agrees. “Some people have expressed concern that living, working, or going to school near a cellphone tower might increase the risk of cancer or other health problems,” the society says in a post on concerns about the towers. “At this time, there is very little evidence to support this idea. In theory, there are some important points that would argue against cellular phone towers being able to cause cancer.”

Concern in Matthews

Elizabeth Lane parents became alarmed late last week when they heard that the Matthews Board of Commissioners would vote Monday on a request to revise the current 80-foot height limit to allow 120-foot towers and to launch the process for approving the tower at the school.

The plans submitted with the zoning request show a “fall zone” for the tower, indicating it could topple onto the track where students run laps, Stienecker said. They also indicate trees and shrubs that buffer the playground from busy N.C. 51 would be cut down to allow construction.

Once a tower is built, Berkley contracts with cellphone providers that want to use it. Stienecker said that could mean employees from various companies would be on the grounds at all hours.

Stienecker said she and other parents understand the need for better cell coverage in the area. “I don’t have issues with that,” she said. “Just not at a school playground.”

Dennis LaCaria, a CMS planner working on the tower projects, said that if CMS doesn’t provide the land, someone else will. “They could end up with our neighbors and be just as close to the school,” he said.

Parents emailed town commissioners about their concerns. Taylor, the mayor, said approving the change that allows 120-foot towers in residential/institutional zones, which includes the five CMS schools in Matthews, actually ensures that town officials will have a say in how and whether such towers are approved.

The vote to accept Berkley’s petition for the Elizabeth Lane tower was simply a first step that’s required by law, Taylor said. Commissioners can later reject the petition, but they’re legally required to set the process in motion, including a public hearing.

“Up until that public hearing,” he said, “it’s really not appropriate for anybody to voice an opinion.”

Helms: 704-358-5033 Twitter: @anndosshelms
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