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Towering Antenna at High School?

Proposed cell tower at Mount Vernon High draws criticism.

Dan Burrier’s neighbors can sometimes be seen wandering around their neighborhood searching for a signal for their cellular phones.

“One must seek that all-important spot, where on that one particular day, reception is available,” said Burrier, president of the Mount Zephyr Citizen’s Association.

The answer to his neighborhood’s cell phone dilemma may come in the form of a new cell tower at Mount Vernon High School, but some around the school oppose the proposed monopole.

Cellular provider T-Mobile proposes to remove one of the 12 existing 55-foot tall light poles that surround the school’s baseball diamond. The pole would be replaced with a 69-foot tall cell tower. The lights would then be put on the tower at the same height and orientation as the current light pole. Additionally, T-Mobile would construct a 29-by-18 foot area for its equipment cabinets.

About 11 people came to speak about the proposed tower at the May 31 Fairfax County Planning Commission public hearing on the matter. Most were opposed to the proposal, but several supported it.

Residents are concerned about the emissions from the antennae, the aesthetics of the pole and the size of the equipment cabinet, said Lois Passman of the Riverside Estates Civic Association.

The level of emissions is far lower than the maximum permitted by the Federal government, said Ed Donohue, attorney for T-Mobile.

However, some residents pointed to past instances of chemicals which had been allowed under federal regulations which were later shown to be hazardous. “There is not enough information to state that there is no risk,” said Barbara Scheeler, president of the Mount Vernon High School PTA.

Scheeler’s arguments come up frequently during public hearings about new monopoles.

“I don’t think anything you’ve said this evening is new to us,” said Commissioner Janet Hall (Mason). However, under federal law, localities are prohibited from denying an application for a telecommunications facility based on health concerns.

Scheeler argued that the intent of the law was that health may not be a sole concern, but that it could be a factor in determining the optimum location for a pole.

RESIDENTS WERE also upset that the pole and equipment cabinet will be visible from across the street.

Donohue said the pole would blend in. “This is a 69 foot light pole in a family of other 55 foot poles,” he said.

The equipment cabinet will be surrounded by a wooden fence, and should appear compatible with other existing equipment sheds on the campus, he said.

At least one commissioner agreed. “In reality, once it’s built, no one will see it,” said Hall.

One major sticking point came on a more procedural issue. Typically, cell providers will present a list of other locations that they studied in the area, and will be able to show why this location is the best.

However, T-Mobile did not provide the list of alternate sites. “I am very concerned that you don’t have that information,” Hall said. She said that she was conflicted on the issue. “This is a perfect application. It makes all the sense in the world,” she said. “But, I felt like maybe the citizens get shortchanged.”

Commissioner John Byers (Mount Vernon) brought up the possibility of locating a pole in a nearby park, instead of on school grounds. “I would like you to contact the Park Authority and get a firm decision, one way or another,” he said.

The Planning Commission deferred its decision until June 15.

In terms of land use, the tower would not require action beyond the Planning Commission. In the case of this or any other cell tower built in the county, the Planning Commission must find that it is in conformance with the county’s Comprehensive Plan in terms of location, character and extent – is it an allowed use, in the right place and the right size.

Prior to construction of the tower, T-Mobile must reach a lease agreement with the School Board. Dean Tisdadt, chief operating officer of the school system, said he had presented the information about the proposed tower to the board. He said that board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) had said he was opposed to the monopole, but that it seemed the rest of the board was supportive of the proposal. Tisdadt said he expects the School Board to act on the proposal at its June 22 meeting.