Not in my schoolyard: CMS and Belmont neighborhood tussle over planned cell tower

Belmont neighborhood resident Jesse Leadbetter points out differences in cell towers at different Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
Belmont neighborhood resident Jesse Leadbetter points out differences in cell towers at different Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

The perennial debate over cellphone towers on school grounds has flared anew in Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood, where residents are fighting Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ plan to build a 160-foot tower on one of its smallest campuses.

At a Tuesday meeting, residents said the tower at Hawthorne Academy of Health Sciences, a small high school just outside uptown Charlotte, will pose safety risks – including the chance that the tower could catch fire and topple onto the school. Because the Hawthorne campus is smaller than that of other schools that already host towers, they said the risks and the unsightliness are greater.

“We believe that public schools should be an asset and an enhancement to the communities they serve,” said resident Jennifer Monroe. “Please put our students’ safety above money.”

Representatives of CMS and the Charlotte company that will pay the district about $22,000 a year to lease the space say the towers are safe and help meet the ever-growing demand for data streaming.

“These things are built as strongly as any high rises in Charlotte,” said Bonnie Newell of the Berkley Group.

School districts across America have debated the use of school grounds for communication towers. Some have said no to such projects. For instance, the Los Angeles Unified School District voted in 2009 not to allow cell towers near schools, citing the “potential health effects” from electromagnetic and radio-frequency radiation.

The American Cancer Society says there is “very little evidence” of radiation danger. While that came up at Tuesday’s meeting of the Belmont Community Association, which drew about 60 people, the group focused more on reports of towers catching fire and/or collapsing.

For several years, CMS has leased unused land to the Berkley Group, touting the arrangement as a chance to raise money while boosting cellular service in areas where there’s a need.

Newell called the Belmont neighborhood “a cellular void,” and insisted risks are insignificant: “This is less dangerous than walking out in the sun for two blocks.”

In September 2015 the school board approved tower leases for Hawthorne, Eastway Middle in east Charlotte, the Barnette Elementary/Bradley Middle campus in Huntersville and the Bailey Middle/Hough High campus in Cornelius.

But residents noted that Hawthorne and the surrounding area are changing. Some new residents said they haven’t had a chance to be heard. And Hawthorne has shifted from an alternative school to a health science magnet, with an additional magnet program slated to move from Davis Military/Leadership Academy to Hawthorne next school year.

Nothing was resolved Tuesday. CMS and Berkley agreed to return next month to discuss whether moving the tower from the back of the grounds to the front would make it less intrusive for residents.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms