Up in the Hollow: Schools and cell towers — git ‘er . . . educated

The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors, at the behest of AT&T, will vote at its March meeting on the tabled motion to place a cell tower at the Rappahannock High School. In a surprise move, according to the Rappahannock News, “an alternate site for the proposed 199-foot monopole at the high school had been submitted earlier in the day, another 220 feet from the school . . . .”

To me, and I speak only for myself, this smacks of the same lack of “due diligence” and lack of public information that seems to permeate the whole process. Why was the tower placed closer to the school in the first place? Who made that decision? After what research? With what input? What was the school board vote? And what was the vote to move the tower farther from the school? What concerns were being responded to? The move seems to be an admission of a serious problem.

We don’t have a lot of media out here in our unique mountain home. There is just our one weekly newspaper, and for obvious reasons, there is no investigative reporter. So we have to count on absolute transparency in public affairs.

Most of us are not clear about who approached who about the whole cell tower proposal. There seemed to be a well intentioned collusion to “git ‘er done.” All of a sudden it seems to be a done deal, and if one has reservations about it, one is suddenly labeled as kind of “idle rich come-here environmental extremist.” Do what?! This is not the way Rappahannock has traditionally done business. The issue itself has caused more angry dissension and division than any I can recall. What’s up with that?

Our county depends very much on the goodwill and fellowship of volunteers and the generosity of community-minded citizens. This affair is fraying that spirit.

I have a very serious favor to ask of our community, especially our county officials and supervisors. Please Google “schools and cell towers” and explore there for an hour or so. You might see some nonsense, but you will also find a lot of serious information. You will find that cell phone companies, knowing that school budgets are being cut during this recession, are using this public relations gambit around the country. And it is meeting with stiff resistance for good reasons.

I think we all know that the science on electromagnetic radiation is an evolving discipline. Cell towers and cell phones are a recent phenomenon, so only a few decades of study have taken place. And the proliferation of cell towers has been extraordinary, from a few thousand to more than a quarter million in two decades. And the growth is exponential. So with more time and more cell sites, scientists naturally will have a much larger and more meaningful sample.

We need to ask ourselves some questions. Are these concerns merely the rantings of over-reacting environmental wackos? Or are they the prudent caution of thoughtful parents and school boards? Remember, many of us are of the generation that was told that tobacco had no harmful effects and was certainly not cancer causing. And the federal government went along with it. And we grew up in houses, schools, and offices which were festered with asbestos. How did that work out?

The Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the largest in the country, has already moved to keep cell radiation off of their school properties. The same thing is happening in other American cities and towns.

If our school district is in the kind of dire need that it needs to risk the health and safety of our kids, then as individuals and groups we should pony up to meet the cost of that lease agreement. I volunteer right here to contribute what I can on a monthly basis.

Hey y’all, I know that a whole lot of folks here are really looking forward to better cell phone service. And I’m the leader of the pack when it comes to faster Internet service. But we seem to be going off half-cocked and hurriedly. Better service will come if we are patient, and there will be better coverage. We shouldn’t sell the farm just yet. We are the hole in the doughnut right now, and believe it or not, that hole is a seller’s market.

And while you are on Google, check out the “lightRadiocube” from Bell Labs. It is expected to make cell towers obsolete in the very near future, perhaps as soon as next year. Similar technology is already in use in major cities with large buildings. The “lightRadiocube” technology would provide almost universal coverage for a place like Rappahannock, rather than the limited coverage (45 percent) now offered by AT&T. These “cubes,” with less radiation than a tower, could be placed on chimneys, flagpoles, barn roofs, or old TV antennas. Then Rappahannock could have almost complete coverage without the plug-ugly monopoles and that which comes with them, health concerns, lowered property values, and less coverage.

Federal law says we have to allow for cell companies to present plans for service. It doesn’t say we have to jump through their hoops at whatever the cost. Let’s start over again, and get this thing done as a unified community.

I know that County Administrator John McCarthy and the supervisors have worked hard and spent a lot of time on this. We should thank them for that. But we should also expect them to respond in a very public way to the concerns raised, and to new information which could make the idea of gigantic cell towers obsolete before 2013. Let’s not paint ourselves into a corner created by AT&T.


  1. Pamela has urged community members “to become more proactive in this discussion..”

    I don’t hear a discussion and certainly nothing that has risen to the level of a dialogue. There has been an expression of positions, most often, as far as I can see, based on a false or simply misrepresented framing of the core questions. That has resulted in an informal and inappropriate “vote tally.” But the tally has been taken and as far as the issue is concerned it seems to have reached a “done with” status.

    It would be really nice if that proved to be a misinterpretation of the situation.

    It has been suggested by someone that our representatives are “locked in” because of a conflict with pride. I personally think that pride has little if anything to do with it. Factual information that doesn’t smoothly integrate with the accepted and most loudly proclaimed view of reality is routinely discredited and ignored.

    Millions of people believing something that isn’t true doesn’t make it true. Some things have no business being left up to a matter of a majority “opinion”; especially when the “opinions” are predicated on a distorted question.

    A representative government relies on the diligence and thoroughness of the selected representatives in the execution of their accepted duties and tasks as well as their dedication to the responsibilities of stewardship inherent in having accepted the roles they are in. In this respect I am very disappointed with our local government’s performance.

    Mr. Pagano

  2. Thanks Pamela,
    For the kind words. One phrase struck me in your post: “If the county has this much say in where it goes, let’s move it altogether.”

    The last time I looked, the county has total say and complete authority not only about where these towers should go, but whether or not the plan is satifsfactory for a permit. What the county cannot do is deny a cell provider the opportunity to make an application, and it must give that application a fair hearing.

    But such a proposal can be modified, re-negotiated, or simply denied for cause. Otherwise, our county would already be an antenna farm, and would resemble Gainesville in development.

    As a businessman, I know that if you only have one choice, you have no choice at all. Competition is vital and this deal is a Hobson’s Choice.

    Thanks for speaking out.

    Ben Jones

  3. Ben,
    Once again, thank you for your wisdom on this issue. I sincerely hope that the decision-makers are doing even a fraction of the research that apparently some of the rest of us are. I second the motion that everyone should be doing a little more googling – I’d try “safe cell tower distance” and “cell tower dangers” as well. An hour is good, but several hours would be better. I do not know how anyone could think it’s a good idea to put a cell phone tower at a school of all places. If there is ANY doubt over the health and safety of these towers, it seems negligent to take ANY chances with growing children. Furthermore, we certainly would not be trailblazers to turn this thing down. Schools and communities across the nation, and world for that matter, have already taken this highly respectable protective stance and are demanding better placement of towers. I just hope it’s not too late for us to the same.

    I have read the School Board minutes from meetings in June and August, when the agreement with AT&T apparently took place, and I still have not been able to see how this decision was made. I hope to uncover more of these answers in the coming weeks, as I would love to understand the process. I can only assume that all the complaints, and perceived chance that the tower could be legitimately voted down over issues of safety, led to the change in heart about the actual site. I have had heard comments from both Supervisors and school officials to the effect of, “We’re going to try to move the tower”. If the county has this much say in where it goes, let’s move it altogether!

    I do know that the original site posed significant safety hazards with the less than the recommended 70 foot fallback distance and was also heavily contested by PEC. Perhaps the thinking was also that moving the tower back a little further was going to make it less visible along 211. As Chris Parrish already went out of the gates to suggest, it’s going to be hard to conceal a 199 foot tower behind 60 foot trees.

    The new “cube” wireless technology definitely seems worth pursuing. I’d be interested in learning more about it, particularly the way it traffics signals and lessens radiation. Its ability to offer wider, more seamless coverage also echoes a complaint that I heard at one of the meetings along the lines of, “If we settle for 45% now, it’s going to be hard to ever get better coverage.”

    I also encourage community members to become more proactive in this discussion, to do their own research, and to make their concerns known to the Superintendent, School Board and Board of Supervisors. It is not too late to speak up. I don’t doubt that the community’s youth will someday thank you for it.

    Pamela Chovnick

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