Cell tower controversy heats up

Verizon is coming to town for school district public hearing

By Katherine Nettles

The pending installation of cell phone towers at both Gunnison High School (GHS) and Crested Butte Community School (CBCS) is under increasing scrutiny as a public meeting approaches on Monday, February 4 to address the matter with the Re1J Gunnison Valley School District.

The contract between Verizon Wireless Communications, LLC and the school district to erect the towers recently came to the attention of the community as the first project began at GHS this winter. Verizon is replacing a 60-foot light tower there with one that includes a 20-foot cell antenna on top.

A future cell antennae project is planned on the elementary school wing of the CBCS campus as part of the Verizon contract. There are no current plans for its construction. Locals in both Crested Butte and Gunnison have raised concerns with the health, property and public review aspects of the issue.

School district superintendent Leslie Nichols explained the contract and scope of the projects at the January 7 school board meeting, and several concerned citizens attended and spoke about the potential of health-related hazards and real estate depreciation for the surrounding areas, and a lack of public process leading up to the contract with Verizon. The school board had entered into the contract with Verizon in 2017 without any public involvement or an official vote by the school board.

The following evening, Gunnison City Council discussed the matter in an executive session. The city then sent a letter to the school district on January 9 requesting a public hearing be conducted “promptly” in front of the school board, and that “the [school] Board work with Verizon to cease construction of the cell tower until the hearing can be held and citizen concerns addressed.

“The City’s position is that the right to a public hearing is a condition precedent to construction of any structure or building under the statute,” according to the letter, which was signed by Gunnison city manager Russell Forrest.

Nichols said on January 29 that the light tower construction at GHS is ongoing, despite the controversy and the city of Gunnison’s letter to the district asking that it stop. “Some aspects of the installation of the light tower at GHS are continuing, but it will not be operational for some time yet,” Nichols said.

Verizon’s response to the City of Gunnison’s request was sent to Nichols by their staff counsel and concluded that  “It would be very costly to delay construction at this point in time. Because we obtained all necessary approvals for this project, we plan to proceed with construction this week.  However, we can refrain from placing the site on air until we are able to join the School Board at a Q&A session about the project.”

Meanwhile, Nichols said Verizon plans to have representatives at the February 4 meeting to address questions and concerns from the community.

They will accept questions that are submitted in advance to gunnisonhs-qa@verizonwireless.com or written on paper during the meeting. Additionally, “The district is working with an electrical engineering firm to get pre- and post- readings of the radiofrequency levels,” Nichols said.

“It’s complicated. The tower is up and the School District has stated it is a part of their communications and safety plan,” wrote Gunnison mayor Jim Gelwicks in an e-mail. “The City of Gunnison exercised its option with the referral to the District. The City of Gunnison is reviewing its code to update it so we have a clearer policy in the future. This will not impact the high school site,” Gelwicks wrote.

Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt said he would bring up the issue of the future installations at the CBCS primary school at the regular Crested Butte Town Council meeting on February 4.

“There seems to be contradictory information on the affects of cell towers. It would be wise to err on the side of caution and locate the tower at some other location. The public works yard/wastewater plant might be an appropriate place. If the school needs the money on the rental space, I’m sure that we could work something out. It should be pointed out that when we traded the land to the school it was made very clear that any construction would have to go through BOZAR,” Schmidt wrote by e-mail.

Crested Butte town manager Dara MacDonald also weighed in, explaining that the school district approached the town in late 2017 about the tower at CBCS. “At that time Molly [Minneman] and two members of BOZAR conducted an initial site visit and the informal review began. No application was ever received. The last set of plans the Town has is from May of 2018. Staff’s initial take was the design was something BOZAR could work with. We do not have a position about the placement of cell towers near children. It is my understanding from [Nichols] that Verizon has not provided the district with an anticipated construction schedule for the CBCS tower,” MacDonald wrote in an e-mail.

MacDonald also pointed to an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between the town of Crested Butte and the school board, which is up for renewal in 2019 and being looked at by all involved parties. MacDonald predicted that the town will probably insist that any construction at the CBCS campus is subject to BOZAR in exchange for the land that was provided to the district. “That emerged as a sticking point in our review of the IGA which began prior to the great cell tower controversy of 2019,” she wrote.

Section 3.A of the IGA states: “The School District shall work with BOZAR to assure that the School Expansion, including, without limitation, any new improvements (inclusive of all new parking, driveway, walkway and traffic facilities, road, sewer and gutter improvements) and any associated demolition and construction, first receives Town approval and adheres to Town regulations and guidelines. The School Expansion and all new improvements shall be subject to the architectural and design review and approval process of BOZAR.”

As Gunnison faces the reality of a project already nearing completion, CBCS is as yet undetermined.

“We’ve certainly been getting some calls,” said MacDonald. “As for cell towers in general, the town’s Land Use Code is pretty weak on the subject, and federal law has a lot of limitations on what local jurisdictions can do to limit them. So we’re studying up at the moment,” she said.

A public hearing will be held in Gunnison at the Gunnison High School auditorium on Monday, February 4, at 5:30 p.m. There will be a remote location in Crested Butte in the Multi-purpose Room at CBCS, where people can listen in and comment/participate if they choose.

According to the school district, Verizon will be in attendance in Gunnison, and will accept written questions from the public. The school board will take public comment on the issue at the meeting.

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