Tuesday, February 6, 2012. from Crossroads News. The fight to protect DeKalb County School System properties from more cell towers has now shifted to requiring the DeKalb Board of Education to hold a referendum before it can approve any more schools for towers.
State Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates) is running a required ad in the legal organ next week announcing her intention to introduce a bill to provide for a nonbinding referendum by the county’s voters on whether local, independent or charter schools in the county should place or operate a telecommunications tower on any elementary, middle or high school property.
The bill also would provide for procedures, requirements and an effective date.
Drenner said Tuesday that she is pushing to have the bill passed and possibly making it on the July 31 ballot or the November ballot.
The shift in strategy came March 6, when House Bill 1197, which Drenner sponsored with the support of 16 of the DeKalb delegation’s 18 members, failed to make it out of the House Intragovernmental Coordination Committee. Only State Reps. Howard Mosby (D-Atlanta) and Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta) did not support the legislation.
State legislators have been seeking ways to prevent the location of more cell towers on DeKalb Schools property after a July 12, 2011, vote by the DeKalb School Board to allow T-Mobile to locate 150-foot high towers on nine school properties for up to 30 years. Most of those schools are in South DeKalb county.
The towers will be placed at six elementary schools, two high schools and a comprehensive school.
The schools are Flat Rock and Princeton elementary and MLK Jr. High in Lithonia; Briarlake and Narvie J. Harris elementary in Decatur; Smoke Rise Elementary in Stone Mountain; Jolly Elementary in Clarkston; and Lakeside High and Margaret Harris Comprehensive School in Atlanta.
The legislative attempt will not prevent the towers at the nine schools but could prevent more schools from being added to the list.
Rep. Chuck Sims (R-Ambrose), who chairs the committee, said the bill – which sought to prohibit the placement of cell towers on school properties in DeKalb County – was unconstitutional.
“It would have to be all the counties and we would probably have a fight on that end on the federal level,” he said. “We as a body cannot do that.”
Sims said he has “a bit of a problem” putting cell towers on school grounds.
“But for various and sundry reasons, there is nothing in the Constitution that would allow us as a legislative body to make a local bill, a local ordinance, that would prohibit or allow it,” he said. “We couldn’t do either one.”
At the end of the meeting, Drenner said it was “a long fought effort.” She told the committee members that research associated with cell phones placement is of concern.
“I would say to every single one of you sitting up here today, if you care for your children, you will not allow cell phone towers on your school property because what you are doing is that you are creating exposures to your children from pre-k all the way up to the 12th grade, from six hours a day, five days a week, 150 days a year, for 12 years,” she said.
Drenner said that research has not been done yet and that the health effects associated with radio frequency radiation and magnetic field are not known.
“I would encourage each of you as a precautionary measure to avoid, if possible, placing cell phone towers on school property,” said Drenner, a six-term representative and a radiation physicist.
Sims suggested that the DeKalb delegation pursue Senate Bill 498, sponsored by Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur), which would require the state and local government to hold public hearings before leasing public property to private organizations for nongovernmental and commercial reasons.
“That’s the bill that needs to be addressed and not a local bill that subjects these towers from going where they need to go,” he said.
Sims offered to help the DeKalb delegation push through a joint non-binding referendum in this legislative session so that the School Board can know how the people in the county feel about cell phone towers at their schools.
He also suggested that the delegation look at making the Board of Education’s policy book into local law.
“The School Board can make or break policy all they want to,” he said, “but if you take that policy book and make it local law, they can’t do it, and they can be subject to malfeasance in office if they break it.”
Lack of notification
Speaker after speaker told the committee that the DeKalb School Board did not give proper notification to the community and stonewalled and would not entertain discussions about the cell towers. They also said they want the School Board and T-Mobile to be subject to the county zoning ordinances that regulate the placement of cell towers.
Viola Davis, a co-founder of the Stone Mountain-based Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter organization, said that they made it clear that the school board was not giving them enough time to inform the parents and homeowners.
“Now, did they listen to us as voters? No they didn’t,” she said. “Did they listen to us as taxpayers? No they didn’t. Now we are right here and they are using our tax dollars to pay for a lobbyist.”
Richard Marion, who lives within walking distance of Briarlake Elementary School, said there was no real notification to the community or to the parents.
“Regardless of what the Board of Education tells you, there are hundreds, if not thousands of people, that did not know that any cell towers were going to be built at any school,” he said.
Marion said that the community is not anti-cell towers but is against them being placed at public elementary and other schools.
“We realize that cell towers have an appropriate place on commercially zoned property,” he said. “The Briarlake Elementary School and the eight other schools are not commercially zoned properties.”
Marion said that local zoning ordinances would prevent the construction of cell towers on school property because there is not enough room for local zoning setbacks of 150 to 200 feet at several of the schools.
“The DeKalb Board of Education wants to overrule the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners and put the cell towers perhaps within 50 feet of not only the school building, but within 50 feet of residences and houses that surround these public schools.”
Answering a question from the committee, Marion said that the county attorney had refused to give feedback as to why the towers on school property are exempt from county setbacks.
“We know that two-thirds of our taxes go to the School Board while a third goes to DeKalb County,” he said. “What we believe is happening is that the School Board is controlling what the DeKalb Board of Commissioners is attempting to do regarding cell towers … monetarily they end up knowing that they may have the power over the DeKalb Board of Commissioners and, therefore, our voices are not represented.”
Impact on children, homes
Joe Staley, who lives near Margaret Harris Comprehensive, told the committee that the community has a tremendous case that shows that cell towers should not go on school property without going through proper zoning regulations because school property in DeKalb County is almost always located in the middle of residential areas.
“The DeKalb Board of Education has no interest in listening,” he said. “I brought all those arguments to them long before the contracts were signed and there was literally no response.”
Staley pointed out that DeKalb County zoning regulations for cell phone towers call for minimum setbacks, public hearings, certain fencing requirements and aesthetic values but that the School Board and T-Mobile are attempting to circumvent these regulations by locating on school property.
“Because of that, you have towers that are literally on top of schools and literally on top of residential neighbors,” he said. “If a tower fell at some of these locations, they would fall directly on top of people’s homes. That is crazy.”
Stephanie Byrne, who lives near the 11.4-acre Briarlake Elementary School and has three children attending it, said that it is surrounded by residences and every inch of the school is used for programs.
“You cannot place a piece of industrial equipment on a school campus and ask the children not to be impacted by it,” she said. “If you put something on the school ground, even with barbed wire, it’s going to be investigated by children.”
Byrne said that at a meeting last September in the school’s cafeteria, District 4 School Board member Paul Womack told them the cell towers were a done deal.
“He stood up in front of all of us in the school cafeteria and shook his finger at us, and he said, ‘You people need to stop whining. This is a done deal,’” she said.
Byrne said that she pursued the issue with state Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta), who reached out to School Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson.
“On Dec. 8, when she wrote to him saying, ‘Look I am new at this job, I haven’t had time to consider this, the Board of Education voted back in July. I don’t know anything about this issue.’ On that very day, she signed the contract, signed and executed the contract for Briarlake Elementary, that we were told in September was a done deal.”
Bill assailed by industry
Two lobbyists for the wireless industry told committee members that Drenner’s bill violated federal law and the state constitution.
Jacqueline McCarthy, director of state regulatory affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based CTIA–The Wireless Association, which represents wireless carriers, device manufacturers and Internet service providers, told committee members that House Bill 1197 violated federal law and was “an outright prohibition on the placement of wireless towers on an entire class of property in DeKalb County” and would have the effect of prohibiting any entity from providing wireless service.
She also said that local laws could not be made on the basis of concerns over the health effects of radio frequency emission.
“Given federal pre-emption over health effects of radio frequency emissions, House Bill 1197 lacks a compelling public purpose,” she said.
Helen Smith, who co-chairs the Georgia Wireless Association’s regulatory committee, said the adoption of this bill would result in multiple violations of the Georgia Constitution.
“You can’t allow this law to go forward because it would violate the state constitution,” she said, adding that T-Mobile followed the process and held meetings, which she attended.
Smith said T-Mobile has turned to the School Board because more than 80 percent of DeKalb County is zoned residential and that the DeKalb County zoning ordinance as drafted, right now, prohibits a wireless facility entirely on a residentially zoned property.
“The reason that the School Board does not have to comply with zoning procedures and zoning ordinances in DeKalb County is because the School Board is a state entity under the state school board,” she said. “So that is why a wireless facility does not have to go through zoning in DeKalb County.”
Smith said that the School Board still has to get a building permit and comply with structural and other requirements.
“Those are not exempt, just like a school building is not exempt from getting a building permit, that are state code driven,” she said.
Ruby Davis, who co-founded of the Unhappy Taxpayers and Voter organization with her daughter Viola, asked about the impact on homeowners.
“Those people that live in the Jolly [Elementary] area, most of them own their own homes,” said Davis, who lives in Stone Mountain. “If they want to sell it, how are they going to sell. Would you buy a home under a cell tower?”
Sims, who is a state legislator from Coffee County, said that he didn’t think the cell tower folks are the bad guys. “The bad guys are your local School Board for not listening to you to start with.”