School board OKs talks with tower company

On the eve of a new school year, the Rappahannock County School Board agreed to enter into negotiations with Community Wireless Structures (CWS), which has offered to place on school property a cell phone tower it would lease to carriers.

Back in 2011, the county supervisors approved AT&T’s request to extend two existing Sprint towers in Amissville and Ben Venue, as well as granted permission for three 199-foot monopoles — behind Rappahannock County High School, off Woodward Road south of Sperryville and off U.S. 522 near Boston — though not without some controversy.

(AT&T never built the three new towers, extending only the Amissville and Ben Venue poles and adding its own antenna arrays only to the Ben Venue site.)

The board held a sparsely attended public hearing on the CWS proposal July 29, at which CWS founder Thomas A. Murray told the board that the company specialized in setting up cell infrastructure in Virginia, erecting 45 structures in 11 counties thus far. The 199-foot monopole (located in the same spot previously approved for AT&T) would be designed for multiple carriers, Murray said.

CWS is pursuing all three sites previously approved for AT&T, Murray said — including the Sperryville site on Woodward Road, on a farm owned by Jake and Beth Jones, who Murray said have already signed a lease.

Woodville resident Cynthia Price was the first to speak at the school board’s public session during its regular monthly meeting Tuesday (Aug. 12), and urged the board not to accept CWS’ proposal. Price tried “to hit some high points” in her comments, noting that “many credible people object” to the claim that there aren’t health drawbacks to wireless signals and microwave radiation.

“There’s so much information out there you don’t get,” Price said, pointing to studies she’d found linking a rise in brain cancers with a rise in wireless devices and signals, and said it was especially dangerous to young children. “And that’s not conspiracy theory; that’s conspiracy fact.”

Calling Rappahannock “our little sanctuary” without “the sea of microwave [radiation]” other areas have become, Price urged the board to, if nothing else, put such a tower somewhere else, “at least 10 miles away from anyone’s home.”

Jane Mullen, representing the parents of students at Hearthstone School she heads in Sperryville (an area which would receive cell coverage from the proposed tower on Woodward Road), also spoke against placing a cell tower on any school’s property, saying that most Hearthstone parents were against it. Mullen also urged the board not to sign with CWS and to keep Rappahannock “a safe area with no microwave radiation.”

Piedmont district resident Mike Luthi also voiced his disapproval of the tower, and said he found it “appalling” that the board would consider putting a business decision above the safety of the schools’ students. “I’m quite taken aback by that,” Luthi admitted. “If you read the data out there, it’s about 50-50 whether these towers are harmful or not. But that 50 percent is enough to make me think there might be some issues there.”

Jackson district’s Amy Hitt lead off the board’s comments, thanking the public for their input and Price for providing ample reading material, which said she read in full. “People think this is a simple, easy job and it’s not,” Hitt said. “We have to consider what’s in the best interest of the kids, the staff and the community — that’s time consuming.”

“But this is the 21st century,” Hitt continued, “and we have to provide for our kids like other school systems do. They’re all using phones, computers and iPads . . . We can’t live in the 19th century. We can’t put Rappahannock in a dome and say nothing will ever come here . . . I think we’d be remiss on the business side if we didn’t at least look at their proposal . . . [but] their business model has to be exceptional [before we sign a lease].”

Both Piedmont’s Aline Johnson and Stonewall-Hawthorne’s Larry Grove admitted they had mixed feelings about placing the tower on school property. Grove said he’d only be comfortable signing a lease “if the business and safety models are there,” though he added the community as a whole would benefit from increased cell coverage, even if it was just quicker access to emergency services.

“I’d rather it wasn’t here [on school property],” admitted Wakefield district representative Chris Ubben. Ubben added he was confident the tower wouldn’t pose a health issue, and would benefit students and the community, but reiterated his desire for the tower to be placed somewhere else.

Chairman John Lesinski said he’d fielded no phone calls or emails from citizens since the board’s July public hearing — in stark contrast to the last time cell towers were discussed. “I feel people’s attitudes have changed since the towers were introduced,” Lesinski said.

“Public safety is a big part of this,” Lesinski added, noting that the lease would only be signed if it provided both an economic advantage to the school system and didn’t pose a public safety hazard. “There are still more steps to take here,” he stressed, including obtaining a special-use permit from the county’s board of supervisors. “This is not the final say.”

With that, the board put the matter to a vote, ultimately approving negotiations with CWS, 4-1. (Johnson was the lone dissenting vote.)