|Stop the Cell Tower at Holmes Middle School!|
Latest News! In a letter to the Department of Planning and Zoning on Friday, December 10th, Milestone's legal counsel has officially requested that the Holmes application be removed from the February Planning Board agenda, and "deferred indefinitely". It sure is nice when a plan comes together. We made a big public stink, and it seems to have worked ... for now. Many thanks to everyone involved, it was truly a team effort. We will remain vigilant.
What's Going On Here?Milestone Communications, in partnership with T-Mobile, are proposing to erect a 115-foot monopole wireless communications tower on the grounds of Holmes Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia. It would be located in a corner of the athletic fields near the parking lot. The plan calls for a 30’ x 98’ fenced compound at the base of the structure to house support equipment for up to five separate carriers. The proposed site is only feet away from nearby residential properties, and smack in the middle of an existing sidewalk used by neighborhood kids (my son included) who walk to school.
We are convinced that this telecommunications complex would reduce the property value of nearby homes, and adversely affect the neighborhood aesthetics and quality of life. While we cannot yet measure the negative health effects of the transmissions from the cell tower, we do know that any risk will be elevated because of the tower’s close proximity to residential property and to the school. We strongly believe that this project should not proceed as planned.
Milestone and Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) have big plans. They want to put a tower at every school. They've already done most of the high schools, and are working on the middle schools. Elementary schools are next. But these commercial towers don't belong at schools. Schools should be for kids, not for corporations!
How Did This Happen?Beats me. Milestone and FCPS seem to have perfected an under-the-radar process which ensures that by the time local communities find out about these projects, they are already on the fast track to approval, and difficult to derail. Although it has happened ... concerned parents at Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church were able to rally the community and force the school to withdraw support for a very similar project. As a matter of fact, they did it twice ... once in 2004 and again this year.
I am the closest property owner to the proposed Holmes site. It is literally feet from my back yard. But I had no inkling of the project until the letter arrived a couple of weeks prior to the balloon test. People who don't live as close received a post card just a few days in advance. At this point, things were already well underway. Drawings and plans had been prepared, Milestone had put up some artfully conceived but inaccurate photos on their web site, the application was in Planning and Zoning. But surrounding property owners had never been notified. I'm pretty sure that most of the parents with kids at Holmes still don't know about it. The process is deeply flawed.
In 2005, the Executive Board of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs passed a resolution recommending improvements to the process, and asking the School Board to "consider a moratorium on placement of cell towers and wireless transmission antennas on school property", but it seems to have had little impact.
What's Next?The application is currently in the hands of the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning. DPZ staff will prepare a Staff Report, which will almost certainly recommend approval. The report will be presented at a public hearing before the Planning Board in February, and the Board will likely endorse the staff recommendation. Sometimes they may exert their authority by changing a juniper to an arborvitae (for example), but they are very unlikely to rule counter to staff recommendation.
Can It Be Stopped?It can ... but it won't be easy. DPZ, even though they are public servants, are not easily swayed by public opinion. To be fair, that isn't their job. They make their rulings based simply on compliance with regulations. The bottom line is that if the application makes it to the public hearing, it will almost certainly be approved.
But there is a way. Several years ago, the County School Board (perhaps emabarrassed by the deal they had given Milestone) decided to pass the buck and delegate authority for individual projects to the administration of the affected school. So the school principal can pull the plug on the project. They are not generally inclined to do this, of course, because of the money involved. Schools always need money, and it's hard to come by these days. But, faced with enough community opposition, they might decide that it's just not worth it. That is what happened at Longfellow, and that is what we need to make happen at Holmes.
Why Do These Towers Have To Be So Tall?Good question. The applications invariably state something like "this is the minimum height required to meet <insert carrier name> coverage requirements". Baloney. They want to put up to five separate carriers on the same pole. Conveniently, this conforms to county guidelines for co-location. But the antennae need to be 10 feet apart ... so the fifth carrier will be at least 40 feet from the top of the pole. It seems like maybe 115 minus 40 is the real minimum.
What About Those Health Concerns?The county, the school system, the telecommunication companies, and every U.S. Government organization with a say in the matter will tell you that these towers are perfectly safe. They emit radiation at levels that are thousands of times below FCC standards. This part is true.
But the fact is that the FCC standards are flawed. They are designed to protect against the short-term thermal affects of radiation; to ensure, in other words, that you don't heat up like a potato in a microwave oven. They refuse to acknowledge the potential for long-term biological effects of constant exposure. Elsewhere in the world, standards are generally much stricter. Independent research has repeatedly demonstrated correlation, if not cause and effect, between proximity to cell towers and various medical conditions. We can't say for sure that the towers are dangerous ... but we can't honestly say that they are safe either. We really just don't know.
Some have characterized the recent proliferation of cell phones, antennae, and other forms of wireless communication as the largest biological experiment in human history. Is it really an experiment we want to conduct on our children?
The Telecommunications act of 1996 contains a provision that makes it a violation of Federal law for local governments to deny cell tower applications based on "environmental" factors. This has been widely interpreted to include "health" factors, even though the word "health" is never actually mentioned. The powerful telecommunications lobby does everything they can to encourage this interpretation, and local governments have been extremely reluctant to consider health-based arguments when evaluating these projects, for fear of ending up in Federal court. It's enough to make you wonder, sometimes, just who it is that our government is trying to protect.
Please check back often for the latest news and updates!