Saturday, January 18, 2020

Unexpected cell tower controversy rattles school district

Contract includes future cell tower on CBCS roof, current installation at GHS

By Katherine Nettles

A standing-room-only   crowd attended a Gunnison Watershed School District (GWSD) board meeting on Monday, January 7, to discuss a cell tower project under way at Gunnison High School (GHS).

A contract between Verizon Wireless Communications, LLC and the school district to erect cell towers at both GHS and Crested Butte Community School (CBCS) has raised concerns of parents and nearby residents about health-related hazards, real estate depreciation and a lack of public process in the matter.

Gunnison residents began noticing recently that Verizon contractors were drilling large holes at the high school to replace a 60-foot light tower there. People learned that the school district had a contract to allow the installation, which includes an additional 20-foot cell antenna on top of the light tower. 

School district superintendent Leslie Nichols came to the meeting prepared to address questions and concerns surrounding the contract.

In a thorough presentation, Nichols traced the origins of the project, beginning in 2017 when Verizon approached the district about locating the towers on the GHS light pole near the football field. Doug Tredway, the superintendent at the time, discussed the possibility with the school board at the time, and all agreed to the plan although no formal vote was ever taken. The district then entered into a contract with Verizon to construct the tower at Gunnison High School and on the elementary school wing of CBCS. The agreement specified Verizon would lease each tower from GWSD for $15,000 per year for five years, with an automatic renewal of five years beyond that.

According to Nichols’ presentation, Verizon began construction in 2018, and GWSD received a zoning letter from the city of Gunnison community development director on June 14, 2018 saying the district was exempt from the local zoning and permitting processes. “Instead, as a government entity, we fall under state regulations,” said Nichols.

The light tower at GHS includes a 100-square-foot enclosure with 12-foot fencing to protect “not a generator, but a backup battery for the tower,” said Nichols. The tower is to be hooked up to the city’s electric grid and have a meter billed directly to Verizon. Nichols added that the GHS project includes some railroad tie steps, an improvement the school district had desired.

The Crested Butte cell tower project is designed to be on the roof, and to match an existing decorative bell tower feature on an adjacent wing of the building.

“The district does find benefits in these towers,” said Nichols, such as strengthening weak to non-existent cell service in Gunnison, Crested Butte, Mt. Crested Butte and Crested Butte South, and providing communications redundancy for the district’s emergency operations plan. Additionally, the school would receive $15,000 per tower annually from Verizon.

“A lot of the concerns I have about the installations are about health and safety,” said Nichols, who reviewed her research on the electromagnetic spectrum. “The [World Health Organization] has done a lot of gathering research to establish safety guidelines. The Food and Drug Administration and national cancer institutions all state that there are no adverse affects from cell tower radio frequency [RF] emissions,” she said.

“Exposure from these is 1,000 times less than the exposure from the [cell phone] that I have in my hand,” Nichols said. “These are 1,000 times less than FCC limits for safe exposure. I feel comfortable with the district’s decision to move into contracts.”

The project’s current status is that the district has contractual obligations to Verizon, and the GHS tower in progress, but the CBCS installation is not yet on Verizon’s schedule.

Once the public commentary session was opened, however, those who had come to speak were not convinced. Some expressed concern that cellular frequencies’ long-term effects are simply too new to be understood. Others said there were real-estate devaluations known to come from new telecommunications towers being installed in an area. The majority was concerned about lack of public input.

Roanne Houck, whose home is close to the cell tower, spoke on behalf of several parents and neighbors. ”We are dismayed that this project did not have the appearance of transparency … Basically, we found out about it in December,” she said.

Mark Kintz, a concerned parent and community member, said, “You had a lot of information about the electromagnetic fields … but everything says there isn’t enough data. These haven’t been around long enough. There haven’t been studies of animals … I just don’t want our children to be guinea pigs.“

Sumaya Abu-haidar, co-chair of the Crested Butte School Advisory Accountability Committee (SAAC), spoke from the Crested Butte Community School (CBCS), which was connected to the meeting by video feed from CBCS. “I feel like Crested Butte dodged a bullet, here … If I were in Gunnison, I would feel really discouraged. The information about health, real estate values, that is all debatable but the real issue here is about lack of process,” she said.

Jonathan Houck spoke repeatedly as a citizen (and not as a county commissioner). “To lock those out in the community who fund the school district—it’s pretty disenfranchising. Our city has a master plan in place, and we did not have the opportunity to say please don’t put it here,” he said. Houck urged the board to bring the issue to the city council meeting on January 8 and ask them to use what resources they had to stall or investigate the project’s permitting process.

Among the group’s suggestions were for the Met Rec District to possibly lease their towers now that the district is “de-Bruced” and can collect such revenue. “All we are asking is, is there an opportunity between the city, the school district and Verizon to find a better solution?” said Houck.

After nearly two hours of public commentary, Nichols ultimately agreed.

“Zoning and permitting questions do exist,” said Nichols. “The process did include a lot of work from Verizon to determine if these locations would be beneficial for service, and while those discussions were at public meetings there are some who feel there wasn’t enough opportunity for public input.”

Nichols continued, “I think our relationship and our parents, our families is one of the most important assets that we have in our district with our community… Hearing the logic behind the comments tonight, I think I was anticipating hearing more about the health concerns. I am feeling like it makes sense for the district to cooperate actively with the city and see if there are options.

“I don’t know the influence that I will be able to exert with Verizon, or the city,” said Nichols, “but I would be in favor of a more active role.” She said specifically she would advocate for “time to get some science before the tower becomes operational” and to have a Verizon spokesperson attend a meeting.

“You guys have my full attention, if that wasn’t clear,” said Nichols. Nichols reported Wednesday that the city council acknowledges the comments, held an executive session with their attorney, but took no action on the matter.

Crested Butte town manager Dara MacDonald said she became aware of the situation from Nichols. “There are no current plans to construct, but it could happen this summer. We are in discussions about BOZAR review,” said MacDonald.

Nichols said she also intended to speak with the Crested Butte Town Council.

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