Monday, October 21, 2019

Verizon defends cell towers, takes questions

Next public hearing will be February 11

By Katherine Nettles

Verizon Wireless Communications, LLC fielded dozens of questions from community members in a 90-minute RE1J Gunnison Valley School District public meeting on Monday regarding a controversial cell tower project under way at Gunnison High School (GHS), but some people came away unsatisfied with the answers and a minimal sense of dialogue. The school board will address the issue at its next meeting this Monday, February 11 at the Gunnison Lake School at 5:30 p.m.

The meeting was held in response to public outcry about a lease the school district had signed with Verizon to allow the telecommunications company to add cell towers to both GHS and Crested Butte Community School (CBCS). The school board entered into the contract without holding public discourse on the matter, and residents essentially became aware of the projects when Verizon began replacing a 60–foot light tower at GHS in November with a new one that includes an additional 20-foot cell antennae on top.

Monday’s meeting, attended by almost 30 citizens in Gunnison and an additional 12 in Crested Butte via remote access, included presentations by superintendent Leslie Nichols and by Verizon, and a Q&A session with Verizon officials, followed by a public comment session with the school board.

LeAnn Mick, president of the school board, opened by stating that when former superintendent Doug Tredway had presented the cell towers concept last year “in public meetings,” the school board never conceived of the response it would get from the community. “For that, we apologize,” she said. “Can we hear you now? The answer is yes. And that is why we are here tonight.”

Mick emphasized that the board was only there to hear comments regarding the GHS project—the CBCS project is not yet scheduled for construction and several permitting questions still remain as to whether it can go forward. Mick said that will have its own discussion in due time.

As to the public commentary on GHS, Mick said, “We will not, though, be answering questions or engaging. We have scheduled such a discussion for February 11 at the regular board meeting. Tonight we are listeners; we will then be reflecting on all that we hear tonight for our discussion on the eleventh.”

Nichols’ presentation then covered the history of the project, much like her presentation at the regular school board meeting on January 7. She reviewed the series of steps the board took, beginning in the spring of 2017 when Verizon approached GWSD about the towers, through when construction began in November at GHS. She discussed the benefits to the district, including rental income, better cellular service, and safety. She concluded with a summary that cell towers in both locations offer benefits to schools and communities; that zoning and permitting questions exist; that concerns from the community do exist; and that the school district is acquiring pre- and post-radio frequency readings at GHS.

Verizon community engagement representative Andrew Cole provided handouts and shared some slides with the audience. He traced how Verizon identified Gunnison as an area for targeted improvement to cellular coverage, especially as user data consumption continues to rise.

“The area of west Gunnison was identified as in need… The threshold for usage becomes exhausted at times, and predicted use increases would increase that frequency of exhaustion.

“Verizon works hard to stay ahead of demands in order to provide the best service possible,” he said. “We absolutely believe the area will benefit.”

Cole also discussed the site selection process, including two alternative locations Verizon had considered, such as the middle school campus or the radio tower north of the city. Ultimately, he said, the GHS light tower was the least amount of construction to an area, would not interfere with the school or its security, and, “We had a willing landlord.” Cole also reviewed the reasons that the radio frequencies to be emitted from the GHS tower are well within legal limits and are not considered a hazard to children or the community surrounding the tower.

Verizon plans to install 4G LT capacities on the GHS tower, with 700 MHz coverage, which is Verizon’s base coverage layer but is very limited in capacity.

“We’ll operate at 1.5 percent of allowable FCC [Federal Communications Commission] allowable limits, at 1,000 times less than the maximum FCC regulations. And we are highly regulated by the FCC,” said Cole.

He also cited several studies on RF radiation levels done by independent parties backing up Verizon’s stance.

Cole said the permitting process has been followed closely, and that only one electrical engineering inspection from the state remains. “We do go through permitting processes with the state…which runs parallel to what a local jurisdiction would require.”

The facility will be operational, Verizon anticipates, as soon as the permitting process is done and school district is comfortable.

Cole addressed property value concerns, citing statistics that a majority of prospective homeowners value good cellular service coverage, and many even prioritize it above all else. “The reality is that we need the wireless facility to be where people are,” he said, in order to be effective. He then answered several dozen questions submitted from the audience, both in advance via e-mail and in writing during the meeting.

Many questions echoed or probed further into issues he had addressed in his presentation, and some he said he could not answer directly.

Cole was asked if Verizon would aim the towers away from the school, to which he replied, “We won’t be doing that, because the RF emissions are within 1.5 percent of the FCC regulations.”

When asked how much money Verizon has invested, Cole said he was not at liberty to give an exact amount, but “tens of thousands of dollars. A considerable amount of capital,” he said.

Cole was asked about other school districts in Colorado. He replied that cell towers are located in the same configurations as what is planned for GVWSD in Boulder Valley School District, in Denver Public Schools, and in Colorado Springs schools.

Cole said they would not relocate by choice, since “We have a significant amount investment in this site.”

When asked what would happen if the school was no longer a willing landlord, Cole struggled to answer, and repeated that they would probably work with what is stated on their lease. He also said he could not speak about what, if any, litigation the company is involved in related to similar community concerns.

Last, the school board offered the public an opportunity to comment. The room was quiet, and only a few people stood to speak. One woman expressed frustration, saying, “What is the point if you aren’t going to answer?”

Attendee Eric Neimeir said he felt that many members of the audience were waiting for the opportunity to engage with the board at its next meeting. “A lot of us are going to just wait,” he said.

The comments that were given all came from Gunnison, and the CBCS group did not have anything to say on this occasion.

Roanne Houck stated her disappointment in the board for having gone about the process in such a way, and stated that the studies being cited were very old and outdated. Tara Wirsing asked if the board would consider other information about RF radiation hazards if it were provided.

A GHS teacher, Erin Vokoun, also spoke out. “Children’s safety is at the top of our minds, literally moment by moment… We ask them to take risks, and try harder than they want to… but we need to lead by example… and understand, how does this technology work?”

The board remained silent until the last comment was made, and then Mick closed the meeting with another statement of apology.

“We express our apologies for not seeking this input earlier in this process. We regret not being more active in seeking public comment. We will be reflecting on all that has been discussed tonight,” she said.

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