Community fights plan for phone tower at school

The Baltimore Sun

Angry about a decision they say was made without community consultation, local legislators and advocates are pressing the Baltimore County school board to scrap plans for a cell phone tower to be built at Randallstown High School -- a project that would pump an estimated $450,000 into the school system.

State Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin said he plans to submit legislation designed to ban cell phone towers from school properties in the county and will file an injunction, if necessary, to stop construction of the 110-foot tower at Randallstown High on Offutt Road.

"Please be advised that I hope to make any plans related to your cell phone tower project at Randallstown High School illegal," Zirkin wrote in a June 1 letter to county schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston. "I will be doing everything in my power to stop this project."

Community advocates say they are worried about health risks and safety hazards -- concerns they say they were unable to express to the school board.

"The way they went about it was hush-hush," community activist Ella White Campbell said. "I was not aware that it came before the planning board and the school board."

County Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, whose 4th District includes Randallstown, said yesterday that he would support Zirkin's legislation to prohibit similar projects. He added that while the council has no procedural recourse to stop the Randallstown project, he hopes the school board will reconsider its plans.

"They should stop this process and talk to the community," Oliver said. "I hope the school system itself will cancel the contract, or try to cancel it, and not put any cell towers on any county properties, especially schools."

Resident Aaron Plymouth's appeal of the county zoning board's decision to permit the tower is pending after a hearing last month. Both sides are expected to file legal briefs by next Friday, according to Plymouth, former president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Randallstown High.

State Sen. Delores G. Kelley and Campbell plan to meet, perhaps as early as next week, with Hairston to discuss their concerns.

"We want to make sure this never happens again," Campbell, executive director of the Liberty Road Community Council, an umbrella organization of community groups in the Liberty Road corridor, said yesterday.

Through a school system spokeswoman, Hairston said yesterday that he "is interested in listening to multiple voices in the community."

Some in the community are concerned about the possible effects of the electrical energy emitted from a tower.

In the Baltimore area, neither Harford nor Anne Arundel County has cell phone towers on school properties. Carroll County's director of facilities, Ray Prokop, said that to the best of his knowledge, the school system has no towers, but the local municipalities are permitted to place them atop water towers that are on school grounds.

In Baltimore County, at least one school, Fullerton Elementary, has a cell phone tower on its property, according to community leaders. But schools spokeswoman Kara Calder said yesterday that school officials could not confirm this.

In September 2005, the county school board agreed to lease property at Randallstown High to T-Mobile so the company could build the cell phone tower near the school's tennis court. The 25-year lease agreement requires T-Mobile to pay the school system $1,500 a month. The tower would be mounted atop an existing light stand and would be surrounded by fencing, though not an electrified fence as some community leaders had been told, according to T-Mobile spokeswoman Jane Builder. She added that the tower could be built within two weeks of the resolution of the legal issues.

Minutes from an August 2004 school board meeting -- when members agreed to allow T-Mobile to conduct a feasibility study, which included soil testing -- indicate that the board did not plan to seek community opinion.

When school board member Joy Shillman asked whether the community would be consulted, Don Krempel, who was then executive director for Physical Facilities for the school system, "responded since the cell tower would be on school property, the community would not have input," according to the minutes from the meeting Aug. 10, 2004.

Campbell said residents are worried because the tower is expected to be built near the school's tennis court, baseball field and parking lot. She said that because area residents often visit the school for recreational purposes, people could be injured if they climb into the fenced-in area to chase after balls near the tower.

Zirkin, who said he testified at last month's appeal before the zoning board, added that the school board's action illustrates his concerns that the panel is unresponsive to the community.

"They believe the schools belong to the school system, not the community," he said. "There was no public notice whatsoever. If they had done so, they would know that the community was opposed."

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