Proposed Cell Tower at Freedom High School Stirs Safety Debate

Several parents in South Riding are objecting to plans to erect a cell tower at Freedom High School. 

Milestone Towers has proposed to build a 150-foot-tall telecommunications monopole at the school. AT&T is the first wireless carrier signed up for the tower, which has spaces for four more providers as well as dedicated space for Loudoun County Public Schools. 

It is the fourth cell tower Milestone has proposed on school properties, three have already been approved by the School Board.

The proposed location of the Freedom High School tower would be just outside the fence line of the school’s football stadium, near the opposing teams’ bleachers. It would also be close to the school’s baseball field and several homes.

Oscar Arteta stands near the proposed spot Milestone Towers wants to put a 150-foot tower at Freedom High School. Arteta is one of many parents opposed to the tower at the school. Alexis Gustin/ Loudoun Now

Parents in the area say they don’t want it on school property because they worry it’s not safe. 

They say data on the safety of having a tower that close to kids is too new and believe it’s hard to know if it truly is safe. They have expressed concerns over students at both Freedom High School and nearby Liberty Elementary school being exposed to radiation from living and attending school so close to a tower.

They have also expressed concerns over the tower lowering property values and it being an eyesore in their neighborhood.

Milestone Towers representative, Matt Penning said the company’s model is to build on county-owned facilities as well as school-owned properties, but also has developed on private properties. 

Milestone Towers held a public briefing on July 18 at Freedom High School to answer questions and give information about the project. 

Xi Van Fleet was one of the few who showed up for the meeting. She said she is concerned about the proposed location of the tower and has been trying to get the word out to her neighbors about it.

She said she believes most of her neighbors accidentally threw away the letter informing them about the meeting and has knocked on over 80 doors asking neighbors how they feel about the tower being built so close to the school and their homes. 

“It’s way too close to all of us. I spoke to three people who just bought their homes here. They spent a lot of money to buy their home and they had no idea there was a plan to put in a tower,” she said. 

She believes the tower is unnecessary and said there is no problem with the AT&T service in the area. 

Van Fleet said the school system is getting $40,000 to put the tower in. She said she fears losing more than that in property value and said others won’t want to buy a home if they see a big tower nearby. She believes the money the school will get won’t offset the loss in taxes if property values drop.

“$40,000 is not worth all the problems,” said Van Fleet.

According to the Master License Agreement, the school division will get a one-time payment of $40,000 once construction on the tower begins. Then it will earn 40% of any revenue from the service providers on the tower.  

The School Board’s policy allows for cell towers to be placed on school property. 

Van Fleet wants Milestone Towers to consider other places for the tower. 

“Everyone is reasonable, we understand the need for the service and depend on it. We just want them to consider other locations further away from homes. We want them to look at the entrance to South Riding. There is a shopping center there and nobody is there 24/7. Or look at Gum Springs Road. There are other sites to consider, just not in the middle of a residential area,” said Van Fleet. 

Milestone has built monopole towers like the proposed one on Freedom’s campus on school property in other parts of Virginia, including Woodbridge Middle School, Herndon High School and Charles City High School as well as other schools in Fairfax County. It has also built one at Rock Ridge High School in Loudoun County and is expected to build one at Woodgrove High School once the town of Purcellville reviews the proposal. 

Geetika Pahuja is another South Riding resident opposed to the tower. She estimates the distance between her roof to the antenna to be just over 1,100 feet. She said the tower isn’t needed because there aren’t any coverage problems and there is already a 5G tower down the road. 

She asked at the meeting if there have been surveys to determine whether there were coverage problems and was told by Milestone reps that they didn’t have that data because that is something AT&T would know but they weren’t at the meeting to give that data. 

A 5G cell tower located near Braddock Road and Gum Springs Road is just over 2 miles away from the proposed Freedom High School location. 

The 5G cell tower just over two miles away near Braddock Road and Gum Springs Road visible from the Freedom High School parking lot. Alexis Gustin/Loudoun Now

According to a questions and answer page on the school division’s website where it addresses future school and facilities sites, Milestone responded in a question regarding the capability of the AT&T cell tower on Gum Spring Road to support the area, that the tower is not providing the needed coverage to meet current and future performance objectives. It also stated that 5G is in the early stages and its unknown how many additional towers will be needed to make 5G fully functioning. 

“We bought this home for fresh air, open spaces and lakes and for the schools. For all the things I can give my children to have a happy, healthy, stress-free life,” Pahuja said. She said she just isn’t sure about the radiation and if the numbers released by the Federal Communication Commission are truly safe for kids living and going to school near it.

She wants the School Board to postpone the building of the tower or to think more about it.

According to an independent Electromagnetic Exposure Analysis conducted by DBM Engineering of the site to determine whether the proposed tower would comply with FCC guidelines for human exposure, including all four possible carriers, exposure levels would be less than 5.5% of the standard at all ground level locations. 

It also stated it had to assume the three other carriers would have identical antenna and radio configurations to AT&T. 

“Because it is impossible to know which (if any) co-locators with eventually utilize this structure and what their radio frequency configuration could be, this analysis is only meant to provide a rough estimate as to what expected exposure levels could be if the structure were utilized to its full potential,” the report stated. 

The report also stated that radio-frequency emission levels from AT&T and other communications base stations are similar to other two-way communications systems like those used by fire, police and ambulance personnel. 

During an Aug. 2 meeting of the School Board’s Finance and Operations Committee, Penning presented the report to Jeff Morse (Dulles), Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) and Tom Marshall (Leesburg). 

Penning said the report showed a worst-case scenario for all potential carriers on the tower and said in answer to Marshall’s question about any documented negative effects from this kind of emissions that there was “nothing credible or nothing from the government agencies tasked with protecting human health if you are above the levels listed by the FCC.” 

Morse, who has been on board with putting cell towers on school property since the first tower was approved, expressed concerns over the nearby visitor bleachers.

“We’ve been through this several times with extensive background research,” he said. “The majority of the energy going out of the tower is provided to the horizon, not down to the ground. That’s why I’m concerned about the elevated seating and where that would draw out. If you could add that to the analysis, I think that’s an important part we don’t have yet.”

The DBM analysis went up to 20 feet. 

Morse pointed out the bleachers are 30 to 40 feet high and asked Penning if Milestone intended to complete the analysis to the full level of the highest seats in the bleachers, saying he believed the biggest risk was to the elevated seats. Morse said if that became an issue, he would want the tower moved further away.  

Morse also asked Milestone to look at real numbers from their towers that are at a lower height of 110 feet instead of modeling the projected impacts.

“I’d like to see some real numbers I think you could actually find those and provide those. Models are great but models are only as good as the assumptions going in,” he said.

Penning agreed to bringing actual numbers back to the next committee meeting in September and said he could reference cell towers in Fairfax County, some of which have been in place since the late 1990s. 

Morse said he tries to stay current on the research on cell towers and noted there is still concern overall that the long-term radiation effects are not known.

He said most of the comments from people against the Freedom High School tower dealt with worries over the 5G technology. He said, based on his reading that 5G is such a short wavelength that even leaves would prevent it from penetrating the body. 

He said it is known that the further away a cell phone is from the cell tower the more power it needs to work. 

“The real radiation hazard for our children is really the phone in their pocket. That’s the biggest problem and the greatest intensity and most continuous exposure. We can’t legislate that, but we need to figure out if this piece of that risk is substantial enough to not support putting the tower there,” Morse said.

The Finance and Operations Committee will hear an updated report from Milestone at its Sept. 6 meeting. 

The parents who are opposed to the tower are holding a protest on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at Freedom High School to bring awareness to the issue.

7 thoughts on “Proposed Cell Tower at Freedom High School Stirs Safety Debate

  • 2022-08-11 at 6:54 pm

    It’s OK to hold a cell phone up against your brain, but a cell tower 1/4 mile away is a danger? Two ends of a radio transmission…

    • 2022-08-12 at 5:29 pm

      Two issues: 1 – When you put a cell phone to your head it is voluntary. When 1000 students sit exposed to 10’s of thousands of transmissions from a tower (side lobe intensity) it is not voluntary. 2- They get OSHA length exposure (6 plus hours) and as children they have considerably more cellular replication (growth) going on than adults so radiation that can interfere can be serious and perhaps the child doesn’t even see the effects until they leave LCPS but the cause is still ionized radiation – look it up!

  • 2022-08-12 at 8:01 am

    I get it. You don’t want ugly things built in your backyard. It will disrupt your view and home value. And I am not being sarcastic. It’s a real problem in areas that are being over-developed due to demand and a board that approves anything and everything that comes in front of them so long as they see donations on the backend. Unfortunately, it’s going to happen and there is no point in trying to fight it. If it’s not your backyard, it will be someone else’s backyard and then they will protest, etc. The only backyards it won’t impact are those members on the BoS and LCSB.

  • 2022-08-12 at 8:53 am

    (a) The cellular industry doesn’t care about your family’s health.
    (b) Dominion doesn’t are about your family’s health.
    (c) The LoCo BoS and SB don’t care about your family’s health.

    Follow the money from (a) and (b) directly to (c).

  • 2022-08-12 at 10:40 am

    Sorry if this is too critical but this school board seems pretty lame in terms of controlling LCPS for the benefit of both children and the community. When I chaired the finance committee we had lots of campaign donating groups willing to throw a few pennies into the system to supposedly justify their antennas. Here are a few questions concerned parents SHOULD ASK!
    1 Is the provider of the antenna willing to hold LCPS harmless from dollar one of defense costs if any resident sue on either zoning or cancer based complaints?
    2 Is the provider willing to state that there is zero ionizing radiation caused by the antenna which students are exposed to for many hours per day and that if any child at any time gets cancer they will support the impact of that development regardless WHEN that child gets cancer?
    3 How are commercial applications able to be done in residential areas which schools by definition are positioned in?
    4 Did any school board member receive a campaign donation directly or indirectly from the antenna vendor or its suppliers?
    5 Given that LCPS could raise far more income by allowing advertising at the schools and on the vans that deliver mail to all the schools why is this the. choice?
    DEMAND ANSWERS IN WRITING so they can be used as evidence! 🙂

  • 2022-08-12 at 10:54 am

    My suggestion would be to err on the side of caution. Put the kibosh on the cell-phone tower for now. Goodness knows we have enough gadgets to distract us. When I was in school, cell phones were unheard of. And we did just fine. (These towers are an eyesore, to boot.) Happy Youth Day Loudoun!

  • 2022-08-12 at 3:29 pm

    County’s putting one of these on the old Animal Shelter property along Hamilton Station Road in Western Loudoun also. Between these things and the data centers they appear to be actively engaged in uglifying Loudoun as fast as they possibly can.

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