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Cell tower issues to be hashed out before construction at Hillsborough schools

TAMPA — Opponents pleaded for a moratorium, but Hillsborough County commissioners learned Wednesday they can only go so far in regulating cell phone towers on school property.

So instead commissioners voted to work to guarantee that parents have the chance to make their case to school administrators before the towers go up.

"I feel very strongly that we need to do everything we can to ensure the public has the right to participate and have their voices heard," Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said.

Before voting to begin the process to amend their land development code, commissioners suggested they will look at requiring school officials to:

• Hold two public meetings at least two weeks apart before allowing a cell phone tower on campus.

• Notify surrounding property owners and parents of students at the school of the meeting.

Amending the code will take months and several public hearings, so county officials could revise the proposal as they go.

Some commissioners indicated a willingness to go even further. But County Attorney Renee Lee said she would be reluctant to tell other elected officials how to do their jobs or to create requirements that did not treat all cell phone towers the same.

Commissioner Jim Norman asked county staff members to survey other Florida communities to see how they handle cell phone towers on school property.

"I'd like to know what other counties are doing," he said. "If there are no problems, maybe they're doing something right."

School district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said administrators did not know what the finished product would look like, but the school system is happy to comply with local ordinances.

"We're confident that they'll come up with something that works well for them and works well for us," he said.

The commission's vote followed pleas from about a half-dozen cell phone tower opponents who contended that school officials ignore them. "Thank you for taking a stand for our children," said registered nurse Leslie Alagal, who lives in the New Tampa community of Cross Creek.

"Our concerns are for the health and well-being of all students in our schools," she said. "The School Board has created an open door to disaster."

But the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 precludes local governments from regulating the construction of cell phone towers because of concerns about potential health threats, said assistant county attorney Adam Gormly.

Instead, the county's land development code allows for tower permits to be issued either through an administrative review process or through a special use process that involves a public hearing before a county land use hearing officer.

Gormly said the county could revise the administrative review to require that school officials show they held a community meeting prior to submitting an application for a cell tower.

Since late last year, when the issue flared up at Coleman Middle School in South Tampa, cell phone tower opponents countywide have become increasingly organized and vocal. Parents at Pride Elementary in New Tampa have said they didn't know their school had a cell tower until after it was built, and that no community meeting took place until nearly two months after it went up.

Wednesday's vote follows an exchange of letters between the commission and the School Board. Last week, commissioners asked the School Board to stop plans to allow any more cell towers at schools until concerns about community involvement were resolved.

The School Board declined, saying it had and would continue to comply with all the county's land development code.

Commissioner Rose Ferlita said Wednesday she was disappointed with the response, and would have assumed two elected boards with mutual constituents would do more to work together.

"There is just so much that we can do," she said.

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

Cell tower issues to be hashed out before construction at Hillsborough schools 02/18/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 12:06am]

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