Plans to build a 150-foot cell tower at Freedom High School have been stopped for now.
The proposal has been a concern for some parents and neighbors worried about health and safety as well as a drop in property values.
The proposed location, just outside of the football stadium and next to the opposing team bleachers was discussed during the School Board’s Finance and Operations Committee meeting on Sept. 6.
After a lengthy discussion, committee members voted 3-0 against installing it at that location.
Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) proposed the staff look into other locations at the school that are 500-1,300 feet from the school and homes after Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles), who represents the area, cited that as his preferred minimum standards.
Morse opened the discussion by acknowledging that he and other board members had received numerous emails on the matter since the discussion was first brought up several months ago. He said most of the information received from the public dealt with worries over cell phones.
“The research should be about cell towers, not cell phones. If you believe a tower is a threat and your phone isn’t you need to re-examine your process,” Morse said.
Morse said he looked at peer reviewed research about cell towers. He said he reached out to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency that he said was the equivalent of safety agencies tasked with health and safety concerns in the United States. He said, according to ARPANSA, it saw no issues with the levels of radiation from a cell tower. He said he also reached out to U.S. agencies, but none responded.
Morse said he read a lot of research that was “predisposed determination,” which he described as being very biased. He gave the example of a person hating school and going to a website called “I hate schools” and reading about everything they hated about school. He also said he looked at sites that said everything was safe about cell towers.
“Somewhere in the middle is the truth and that’s the problem I keep running into is no one knows what that is. All the research is either contradictory or inconclusive and we just don’t know,” Morse said.
He pointed out that cell tower usage and frequencies have changed over the past 25 years and if you go to the Federal Communications Commission website you will see that all of their regulations are under review.
“These standards are not accurate today because the FCC regulations have not kept up with the technology,” Morse said. “So, the real question becomes are the FCC standards acceptable? And I don’t think so and I don’t think that we know. So at this point I would have to say I don’t think they are.”
“The FCC calls evidence at lower levels of exposure for production of harmful biological effects ambiguous and unproved. ‘And since much research is not done on whole bodies there has been no determination that such affects constitute a human health hazard.’ That is not a ringing endorsement. We haven’t proven anything,” Morse said. “When you read something like that and you run into red flags in one sentence the words ‘routinely’, ‘typically’ and ‘significantly.’ Thy don’t use measurements, they use flowery language that is not accurate and it’s not precise. They are not confident in their findings.”
He pointed out that through his research, for the most part recommendations for safe distances from towers range from 500 to 1,300 feet.
Morse said he looked at the arguments brought up in favor of building the tower—better coverage, money for the school system and better emergency communications. He said he drove around with his AT&T phone and didn’t notice a significant drop in service in the area. He observed it seemed to be a stronger signal, but it wasn’t “solving a big problem.” In regard to the benefit of the tower providing money for the school he shot it down saying they weren’t doing it for the money. The school division would get a one-time payment of $40,000 once construction on the tower begins and 40% of any revenue generated from the service providers on the tower.
He acknowledged the benefit of having FirstNet emergency communications on the tower and said, “I do think that is significant and the coverage helps with weaker signals.”
Morse addressed the worries residents had over decreased home values and said the estimate given him by people who oppose the tower of a 20% drop in property value aren’t feasible since the tower would be built near a high school football stadium with lights and loudspeakers.
Morse said other towers built on school properties are a greater distance from homes and the school than is proposed at Freedom. The distance to the nearest home at the Freedom site is 450 feet and 350 feet from the school.
“I believe the plan is just a little too aggressive. I think we’re trying to plop a cell tower in the middle of an established community and make it fit instead of building them prior to,” he said.
He said he couldn’t support the current location of the proposed tower.
“After looking at everything I’ve looked at even though we don’t have any firm data, we know that EMF is a hazard, we just don’t know what distance or what value. We know that the values are low, but the standards are insufficient.”
He suggested the tower contractor, Milestone, look at other properties in the South Riding area.
The staff has been tasked with looking for alternative locations at Freedom High School that keep the tower between 500 and 1,300 feet from the school and homes. A report will be brought back to the committee at a later date.