On Sept. 7, The Fairfax County School Board is set to decide whether one of Mount Vernon High School’s 55-foot baseball field light poles will grow 14 feet. T-Mobile/Omnipole hopes to install a 69-foot cell phone monopole with attendant structures beyond the outfield fence. With permission received from the county planning commission on July 13, the school board is now clear to decide whether it will build what would be the eighth cell phone tower at a Fairfax County High School, according to Len Forkas, the president of Smartpole/Milestone, which manages all of the school systems’ telecommunications equipment.
David Jillson, a planner with the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning, said the commission approved the cell tower and its facilities because their location, size and appearance all conform to the county’s Comprehensive Plan, and the equipment itself meets federal safety standards. But some community members contend the structures that must accompany the monopole are too big to shoehorn into the high school’s limited space for playing fields. In addition to the additional 14 feet of airspace above the baseball field’s other light poles and the three panel antennas mounted to the pole, the planning commission approved the lease of “approximately 1,400 square feet” of the school’s 24.3-acre grounds. This area beside the scoreboard would contain a 29 by 18 foot equipment facility with an 8-foot-tall-wooden fence, a 12-foot-wide asphalt access road and, if necessary, a stormwater management structure to compensate for the new impermeable surfaces.
The Board of the Riverside Estates Civic Association, which abuts the high school opposes the monopole. In addition, 167 people from the neighborhoods around the school signed a petition that stated, “We are opposed because the massive proposed facility will be a huge eyesore and a potential health hazard.”
But in nearby Mount Zephyr, opinion runs the opposite way. “We are very much for it,” said Dan Burrier, the chairman of the Mount Zephyr Citizens Association. “Mount Zephyr needs it.” Burrier said that the hills and valleys of Mount Zephyr prevent most residents from getting service anywhere in or near their homes.
After speaking to representatives of the both side of the issue, over 100 association members present at a July meeting voted unanimously to have Burrier testify to the planning commission on the cell tower’s behalf. Burrier said the lack of cell phone coverage in the neighborhood means many of its residents, particularly the elderly, are put at risk in an emergency. He added that neighbors would also appreciate being able to use the cell phones for their cheaper long distance rates. “The county is denying us our participation in the 21st century if they deny this monopole,” Burrier said.
AT ITS JULY 27 MEETING, the Fairfax County School Board considered a draft lease agreement for the monopole for informational purposes. A contingent of community members appeared at the meeting to oppose its construction. Most focused their complaints on the size of the requested construction.
“Who wants to look at a huge honking compound all day?” rising Mount Vernon High School junior Alexander LeBlanc asked in his testimony to the board.
Lois Passman, one of the opponents of the monopole who has been working for months to stop the project, compiled a long list of what she views as procedural and regulatory inconsistencies that have dogged T-Mobile’s application from its beginning, including failing, at first, to consider alternative sites for the monopole.
“My concern is, if this kind of stuff goes on under the table, what else? We just kind of tripped over this stuff,” she said.
David Nolan, the president of the Riverside Estates Civic Association wrote in a brief to the school board that the tower could pose dangerous levels of “electromagnetic force” to students in the school.
T-Mobile spokesman Conroy Boxhill said that after objections to the lack of alternative sites were raised at a planning commission meeting, approval plans were delayed until T-Mobile identified six alternative sites. “We’ve clearly done our due diligence on this,” he added.
And Russ Stromberg, a director of engineering development for T-Mobile, said studies by the school system itself have shown that the power levels of the frequencies from the towers will be well within the safety standards set by the FCC. He praised Fairfax County Schools for going “the extra mile” by buying its own testing equipment to study the cell towers on its property.
Another issue arose at the July School Board meeting. There were significant discrepancies between the draft lease and the footprint approved by the planning commission. The schematics presented to the Planning Commission called for a total area of 1,400 square feet that would contain the entire footprint of T-Mobile’s leased property on the school. But the lease that was presented to the school board contained a very different figure. “[The] lessee intends to construct an equipment compound of approximately two thousand two hundred (2,200) square feet,” the lease reads. Attached drawings of the site document a 55 by 40 foot fenced compound, which would account for all of the 2,200 square footage. There is no mention of the additional area needed to construct the asphalt access road or stormwater structure. The total area written into the lease is 800 square feet larger than that approved by the planning commission, and would seemingly require even more space for the necessary access road.
Dean Tistadt, the school system’s chief operating officer, stressed that the release was only a draft. “It’s unfortunate that we gave [the school board] a rough enough draft that it appeared to have that conflict,” he said. “I wasn’t happy that language had gotten in there that wasn’t consistent with what the Planning Commission had approved.” He said it was uncommon for the school board to request a copy of the lease before approving agreements. Often the lease is still being executed when the school board makes its decision. School board members “need to trust staff,” Tistadt said, adding that in this case, an accurate copy of the lease would be presented to the board at its next meeting. “We’re cleaning up that language and what we’re going to send back to the board. The next time is going to be a much better document.”
Dan Storck, the School Board member representing Mount Vernon District, said the school board should not make any decisions unless the exact dimensions of the facilities were clear. “To me it’s essential that the essence of the contract be understood prior to voting on it,” he said.
STORCK SAID he would oppose the monopole agreement, though only in this particular case. He said he agreed with the board “that there was no inherent conflict with having cell towers at certain school sites.” But he believes that at Mount Vernon, the structures simply won’t fit. “Definitely what they’re proposing is way too large,” he said. “It’s going to get in the way of what the mission of the school is, which is to educate the kids and provide them with educational and co-curricular activities.”
He said the attendant facilities are of more concern to him than the height of the pole itself. “The tower is the least of the issue,” he said, before criticizing “the eight foot high stockade fence” and the access road. “I can’t support the design. I’m obviously going to work hard to see that the school board doesn’t approve it.”
Forkas, the president of Smartpole, defended the design, saying the fields where the structures were planned were already studded with athletic buildings like equipment sheds and the baseball field’s scoreboard, dugouts and grandstands.
“Equipment facilities we build on the sites tend to blend in with the facilities,” he said. “I don’t see how it’s significantly in conflict with the property.” He added that the 69 foot pole would be the shortest Smartpole had ever built.
The school board is scheduled to make a decision on the cell tower at its Sept. 7 meeting. In the lease document, Fairfax County Schools would receive as rent 25 percent of the gross monthly revenue from “the use, lease or occupancy” of the monopole, and Mount Vernon High School would receive 15 percent of the revenue. Tistadt estimated this would mean about $625 per month for the school system and $375 per month for Mount Vernon High School. In addition, the school system would receive a single $25,000 payment when construction on the monopole begins.
“I think it's going to be a close vote,” Storck said.