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News Maryland Anne Arundel County Odenton

Lawmakers question effort to evaluate Arundel school sites for cell towers

Anne Arundel County public schools' agreement last year to allow school properties to be evaluated as possible sites for cellphone towers has drawn a mix of support and opposition from some residents.

This week, some elected officials representing an area considered for a tower — Piney Orchard Elementary — chimed in as well, suggesting that the school board terminate its lease with Milestone Communications, a Virginia-based independent tower developer that is performing the evaluations.

"A number of parents at Piney Orchard are concerned about where their kids study and play," said state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, who was joined by Dels. Barbara Frush, Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk and Benjamin Barnes — all representing District 21 — in calling for the board to end the contract.

"Obviously we need cell towers; technology is not very far advanced these days and we're still tied to towers," Rosapepe said. "We obviously need the infrastructure, but we have to be concerned about people's health. We have constituents concerned about this and we're encouraging the school system to do the right thing."

Asked about the lawmaker's comments, school board President Teresa Milio Birge said, "I haven't seen a request asking us to terminate our contract."

Last year the school system entered into a master lease agreement with Milestone to evaluate all school properties for tower installations.

Arundel schools Chief Operating Officer Alex Szachnowicz said that, to date, preliminary talks to place towers at Piney Orchard Elementary and Broadneck High School have been conducted. Among reasons he cited for the agreement were to address concerns from local and federal agencies that wireless coverage gaps in the area could hamper emergency response efforts when cellular calls are dropped.

Szachnowicz also noted the financial incentives — including a $25,000-a-year payment to the school system from Milestone and other payments for lease space and rental fees charged to companies.

"We have an open-ended contract with Milestone that says if coverage gaps exist, and they are of sufficient magnitude and need to be alleviated, and if the school happens to be in the best location to mitigate that gap, then they can come to us with a proposal to install a tower," Szachnowicz said.

"At this stage, it's very preliminary," Szachnowicz added. "If the board preliminarily says, 'We're OK with you vetting this proposal conceptually,' we can say to them, 'Go ahead and vet the property, do your due diligence and come back to us with a firm proposal.'"

Len Forkas, president of Milestone Communications, said Thursday that the company has met requirements for a 99-foot tower to be constructed at Broadneck High school and will break ground on the site within the next few weeks. Milestone constructs cell towers on government land, leases tower space to wireless carriers and shares lease revenue with the government, Forkas said.

The company has towers on schools in Frederick County and agreements to build towers on properties in Prince George's, Talbot, Caroline, Wicomico and Somerset counties, Forkas said.

"Verizon contacted us and said that they have a strong need to address dropped calls and coverage issues with respect to providing its 4G service in those two locations," Forkas said, referring to Broadneck High School and Piney Orchard Elementary School. He added that in meetings with the Piney Orchard community, some residents opposed locations that Milestone had suggested for the tower; others opposed the tower's existence on the property at all.

"Since then, we haven't really moved forward at all on [the Piney Orchard] application," Forkas said. "The school board had some conversations as to whether they would support an alternative location on the school property but as of yet we haven't had an opportunity to evaluate that or determine whether it makes sense to go forward."

Piney Orchard residents, citing health concerns about the tower's proximity to the school and neighborhood homes, have launched a group, Anne Arundel County Against Cell Towers at Schools. On its website, the organization said it has asked its members to attend the school system's Sept. 11 meeting.

Birge said Wednesday that the matter had not been added to the board's list of Sept. 11 agenda items.

"There may be a review item to update the board, but that hasn't been determined yet," Birge said.

The group's website lists potential health risks from exposure to electromagnetic radiation, including cancer, suppressed immune function and depression. The Federal Communications Commission has said cellphone towers generally operate well below safety limits for such emissions.

Asked about health concerns associated with cell towers, Forkas said, "The first question people ask about is electromagnetic field energy, and each panel on the towers generates 35 to 50 watts per panel. It's a very low-power structure.

"Second is the radio energy from the antenna panels," he said. "It's the same type of radio energy from the Wi-Fi routers located in the ceilings of every school in the county. The energy from our sites is equal to that same type of radio energy."

The school system has also heard opposition from the Piney Orchard Community Association. President Jeff Andrade said Milestone and Verizon briefed the association about the tower earlier this year but that concerns still persist.

"We're an adjacent property owner and we will defend our property rights regarding what comes through," Andrade said. "I think it's important that nobody ever consulted anyone in the community before this was approved by the school board. Parents at that school have made it pretty clear that they don't want a cell tower at that school."

Szachnowicz said the school system has received correspondence in support of and in opposition of the tower. He said currently, no free-standing cell towers exist on school property, but cellphone towers atop water towers do exist.

Among schools with cell towers attached to water towers are Chesapeake High School, North County High School and South River High School.

jburris@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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