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Monopole Ahead — Maybe

Cell phone and wireless Internet towers considered for Burke Centre

Cell phone reception isn’t the only technological convenience concerning Fairfax County residents these days. Wireless Internet access is another hot commodity, and the Burke Centre Conservancy is considering one way to improve both services.

Network Consulting, a firm representing several cellular telephone and wireless Internet providers, did a walk-through with Burke Centre staff, Tuesday, June 26. With inflated trial balloons, the consultants were able to show the approximate height of a potential towers, or monopoles, said Patrick Gloyd, Burke Centre Conservancy’s executive director.

"[Monopoles] are by no means decided," said Gloyd. "The process has very much just started."

The consultants took digital photographs of the inflated balloons, set up in several possible tower locations, in order to digitally enhance those images. The enhanced images should show the visual impact the towers could potentially have on the community.

"We’re just talking with them right now; it’s definitely something the community is looking at doing potentially," said Jeannie Winslow, Burke Centre’s director of administration. "These preliminary stages are so we have something to communicate to the community about."

But visual impact isn’t necessarily the number one concern raised by people who live or work near cell phone towers. Health effects remain a concern to some people, even though studies have shown the towers emit significantly less radio frequency, or RF, levels than the Federal Communication Commission standard.

Fairfax County Public Schools leases monopole space at schools to communications companies. The School Board ordered a study of the safety issues surrounding the poles in October 2004. The office of safety and security researched whether RF levels at schools, both with and without monopoles, complied with the FCC standard. Out of more than 349 sample locations, the study showed levels in exterior spaces were about 121,793 times lower than the FCC standard, and levels in interior spaces were about 1,277,102 times lower, according to the office of safety and security’s research data.

Fairfax County Public Schools "would never make a business decision that would create a safety or health problem for staff and students," according to a monopole fact sheet FCPS produced after the study.

"If the schools thought [the towers were] unhealthy, I’m sure they wouldn’t allow them," said Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock).

WHEN THE ISSUE of towers going up at Mount Vernon High School came up last October, an organization specifically dedicated to opposing monopoles at schools rallied to stop the proposal. The group, the Protect Schools Coalition, obtained petition signatures and spoke out at School Board public hearings, ultimately winning the fight. But monopoles already exist at 14 county schools, and zoning applications to construct monopoles at two more schools have already been approved.

As for Burke Centre, it’s too early to tell whether towers could go up, said Gloyd. Towers are near the community already, he said, but none actually in it.

"The people so far we’ve heard from are more interested in the aesthetic impact it would have," said Winslow. "Our motto is being in harmony with nature, so of course the environment is going to be a primary concern for folks."

The balloon test conducted last week was to show visual impact though. Consultants determined where to conduct the tests based on first-hand research from driving around the neighborhood and locating weak signals, Gloyd said. They ended up picking three of Burke Centre’s five community centers as test locations: the Ponds, Oaks and Woods.

"We’re looking at places that would have the least amount of impact to the community at all," said Winslow.

Bulova said that when the towers are out of sight, they can often provide a great service to the community, beyond the improvement in reception and signals. She remembers what a monopole did for the Brandywine Swim Club about 10 years ago, "when the towers were relatively new," said Bulova. The pool was in financial trouble, and once the community became aware of research showing that the poles were not a health concern, it galvanized around the pool in favor of the poles, Bulova said.

"Most of the community was in favor of it … it saved the pool," she said. "You don’t even see it. There are places where you can put cell towers where they’re pretty much invisible."

Since the communications companies must lease the space for the towers, it provides a revenue stream. For example, Fairfax County Public Schools charges a $5,000 one-time fee for each new carrier that installs equipment on a monopole owned by FCPS, and then carriers pay a monthly rent of about $2,100. For monopoles owned by the telecommunications management company, FCPS received a $25,000 one-time fee for new poles constructed, and carriers pay $2,100 in rent to the telecommunications company.

In the cases of FCPS-owned monopoles, FCPS retains 75 percent of the rent, and the rest goes to the telecommunications company that manages the lease agreement and the equipment construction. The telecommunication management company-owned monopoles provide a 40 percent cut of rent to FCPS.

Consultants also addressed the health concerns at the Tuesday, July 3, Burke Centre Board of Trustees meeting.