Thursday, April 9, 2020

Re1J board struggling to satisfy cell tower critics

Looking for a way forward that satisfies all parties

By Katherine Nettles

In another contentious public discussion on Monday about the Verizon Wireless LLC contract with the RE1J Gunnison Watershed School District (GWSD) to erect cell towers at both Gunnison High School (GHS) and Crested Butte Community School (CBCS), the school board showed signs that it might pursue alternative locations and attempt to get out of its landlord agreement with the telecommunications giant.

The discussion took place during the regularly scheduled GWSD board meeting, and allowed for more active dialogue between board members and attendees than the previous meeting on February 4.

Board member Tyler Martineau began by moving to amend the evening’s fully packed agenda, specifically in reference to public discussion on the cell towers. “There have to be some limits on that so that we can get our business done,” he said, and the board voted to allow a 45-minute discussion to begin with.

“We don’t actually engage in public discussion when we are setting our agenda. That’s in our policy,” said Martineau, referring to a provision that calls for “limited public discussion.” He said that at the January 7 meeting, “We really didn’t do it in a way that was consistent with our policy, and I want to make sure we do that tonight.”

Board member Dale Orth agreed, saying he has spent “hours and hours” talking with people over the past few weeks about the cell towers, “but due to our Sunshine Laws, one thing I haven’t been able to do is talk with [the board].”

During the general public comment segment of the meeting, Erik Niemeyer read a letter sent to superintendent Leslie Nichols on February 5 on behalf of a group of 20 Gunnison County citizens who have formed the Concerned Citizens for Smart Wireless Development in the Gunnison Valley. The letter requested that the board direct Nichols to take all actions required to abandon the cell tower plans.

“It’s about finding a way forward,” Niemeyer concluded, emphasizing that the group is determined to be of assistance in finding a suitable location for the towers that satisfy Verizon and the need for better cellular service in the area.

Superintendent Nichols then updated the board about the language of the contract and legal input from both parties. She had followed up with an attorney working for Verizon about the possibility of re-locating the towers.

“And I was reminded that our contract has a no relocation clause,” said Nichols. She explained further that according to the document, Verizon can terminate the contract, but the school district cannot.

Nichols also followed up with the school board’s own attorney to inquire about other options for the district to pursue.

“[The attorney’s] input was that it’s unlikely that Verizon would release the district from this contract, but really probably the best hope for change, should the district decide to pursue that, would be more nuanced and collaborative with Verizon and other local players to try to find a solution that Verizon would find appealing enough to pursue. Because we can’t say to them, ‘You’re not welcome here anymore,’ then other avenues would have to be investigated with them.”

Nichols said the language of the contract is pretty straightforward in both of the separate contracts for the towers, and that the discussions with legal counsel were the same for CBCS.

Nichols addressed the questions about how exposure to radio frequencies (RF) from the towers would stack up with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limits for maximum permissible exposure for the general population. She said she “was fairly convinced that [Verizon’s] response at the [February 4] hearing was vague simply because—mine’s not doing a whole lot better—it’s a little complicated. The science is not super-accessible without going into maybe a presentation and a math lesson on how it all works.”

Nichols admitted she was “fairly frustrated as a landlord, but again we really have no recourse based on the terms of the lease. But Verizon did fail to pull one particular state permit from the Department of Public Safety office of fire control and prevention. I have expressed that I am an unhappy landlord to Verizon, and that needs to be addressed immediately. It’s not a difficult permit to obtain,” she said, and they do intend to obtain it. “I’m frustrated because this is not their first rodeo. They’ve installed towers on other district properties around the state, and they did not have an answer as to why this was not done appropriately…”

The audience came forward with several statements against the cell towers being located on school property, but many also offered to be a part of the solution.

Crested Butte town manager Dara MacDonald expressed appreciation to the school board “for the time and process that you are putting into this.”

MacDonald said, “Given the community concerns…[the town of Crested Butte] would like to offer again that Verizon consider some of the town’s properties to see if one of those locations would provide comparable service for the community as well as the school buildings. And Gunnison County Electrical Association has also reached out to us to discuss their site at the substation outside of Crested Butte. I do hope that Verizon will willingly consider some of these alternatives as a show of good faith in the community that they want to be expanding their services within. To facilitate that, I hope the school board and staff will continue to encourage your contacts at Verizon to consider these alternative sites.”

Amy Nolan, the founder and executive director of the Crested Butte Development Team, or DEVO, and mother of three children at CBCS, was among several others who read statements to the same effect.

Sandra Huckins said, “What a great opportunity for you to show the community that you … represent us.” In counterpoint to arguments that we all carry cell phones and are exposed to high RF daily, she pointed out that elementary students do not have cell phones.

“By putting a tower on the school, you’re taking away my right to choose, and that is something I have a problem with,” she said. “Please consider that the liability of making this decision does not fall on the FCC or on Verizon. It falls on you.”

Jack Siegrist said parents are most concerned with RF’s cancer-causing effects, which are very different from what the FCC and other commonly cited studies look at. “There have been only two experimental studies on lifelong effects … both only came out in the last few months, and both found evidence of increased cancer risks,” he said.

Roanne Houck repeatedly emphasized that people are asking to relocate the towers in a positive, collaborative effort. “Our ask is very, very clear. Tonight, as you talk among yourselves, [we ask] that you direct Dr. Nichols … to take every measure possible to move the towers…. You represent us; you don’t represent Verizon.”

Houck continued, “I’ve read so many ordinances, emergency ordinances, across the country, and they come to school districts… because you are vulnerable.”

Nichols acknowledged that this might be the case.

Laurie Bosearo, a parent of two children who attend CBCS, stated her concerns about health and as a property owner. She cited research that shows property values drop 20 percent when within close range to cell towers. “My request is the same as so many people’s here: Let’s find a better solution.”

The board had some thoughts of its own to share.

Board member Dale Orth was the first to discuss the matter, and spoke widely of his background as a scientist and specifically as a chemist. He said the scientific papers being submitted to the board in recent weeks came across more as advocacy than science, “which is something that as scientists, we tend to avoid. I worry that we make decisions out of fear, as much as I appreciate precaution.”

He also stated his conviction that the health concerns are scientifically unfounded. “If lights of this wavelength were going to cause cancer,” he said, then the cumulative effect of the school’s Wi-Fi, and of the RF surrounding the community already are much more significant than what can be added or subtracted by these towers being allowed or not.

Orth said that at the same time, he was not opposed to relocating the towers. “I’m not saying that we need to cling to it so that we can get our $15,000—I think that a big tower scares us, but I think it’s a good reminder of where we live in the world right now.” Orth noted he did not mean to disregard anyone, and that he appreciated all the messages and input.

Board president LeAnn Mick said she would reflect Orth’s same comments. She said she has heard comments, “more that are favorable toward maintaining the cell tower than trying to do something to stop it… but I appreciate everyone in this room, because that tells me your heart is with the kids. And that’s where my heart is too.”

Mick answered questions about the public meeting in which the idea originally came up, identifying that it was in a superintendent’s report at a regular school board meeting in 2017. “We moved through what we thought was the appropriate pathway,” said Mick, who also recognized that “in hindsight, I certainly would have advocated for something different. I cannot speak for other board members…”

Board member Courtney Fullmer said she was also on the board at the time. “In my six years on the school board, I’ve only seen people in the audience maybe four times… There was no mal-intent.” She said she has kids at the school as well.

“I feel a little bit defensive about [the health concerns]. Kids getting cancer in school—that’s not what I saw happening as a mother, or as a property owner,” she said.

Fullmer also said there will never be a place that doesn’t affect someone, and listed people she knows or employs who could be exposed to the full effect of the RF if the towers were relocated to some of the other suggested areas in town.

“It gets tricky to me to tell community members that it is okay to move it [closer to them],” she said.

Board member Tyler Martineau asked Nichols her thoughts.

Nichols tossed the question back to the board. “What would you like to see?”

Orth said he thought it “entirely appropriate” to explore alternatives.

Nichols said she would continue to press for more information, particularly in the event that any nuanced solutions could be put on the table.

“Our attorney is very engaged in this issue for us,” said Nichols.

Martineau said he is very interested in consequences of breaching the contract, and said, “I’m very interested in having us pursue alternatives. Because it may well be that we can,” he said.

Martineau also made a point of recognizing that he could understand how the board had so easily come to this decision back in 2017.

“Folks maybe don’t realize how the district has had to scratch for every dollar in order to try to provide a quality education…. I can see why there was an appeal for the $15,000… It is so difficult with Colorado school finance the way it is. It is a disaster. And yet somehow this district had managed to be successful as a district in a state that really has an educational finance crisis going on,” he said.

Nichols added for context that one of the efforts at the time had also been the district considering cell phone boosters “to get service to the nooks and crannies,” of the school, at a cost of more than $10,000 as well as additional ongoing upkeep costs, which had further added to the appeal of the Verizon contract.

Ultimately, Martineau said it carries a lot of weight that people want these to be personal decisions about exposure to hazards of any kind, rather than having a district making decisions for them.

“I can understand that,” he said.

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