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Hillsborough commissioners make public hearings on new cell phone towers at schools mandatory

TAMPA — Hillsborough County parents will have a chance to make their case at public hearings before cell towers rise at schools.

Facing a nearly packed auditorium of cell tower supporters and opponents, county commissioners on Thursday reversed an ordinance that had made it easier to place cell towers at schools without public comment.

Previously, the county allowed cell towers at schools without a public hearing if the principal approved and the school met certain other criteria.

An outcry from parents prompted the vote, which was unanimous. Worried that there are too many unknowns about towers and their risks, they had called for a moratorium on towers altogether.

Though other governments across the country have done that very thing, Hillsborough commissioners and attorneys have said that federal law prohibits governments from enforcing an all-out ban based on health concerns.

"What's before us right now is the toughest language that we can apply," Commissioner Jim Norman said. "We have crafted language that the School Board has accepted to make it as tough as possible for cell towers to be put up at school sites."

The parents had also asked board members to require that towers be at least 1,500 feet from schools, a request commissioners did not entertain.

Still, parents were elated that commissioners gave them more of a voice on an issue that affects their children and their neighborhoods.

A tower was up for more than six weeks before Pride Elementary in New Tampa hosted a meeting to gauge community sentiment.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe acknowledged that he didn't know a tower was near his children's school until the controversy over towers began last fall.

The commission's vote will curb incidents like those, parents said.

Stacy Frank, the Tampa lawyer who develops towers for Hills­borough schools and has been a target of parents, endorsed greater public participation.

"It's a good opportunity to answer questions," she said after the vote.

Like the county, the city of Tampa is reviewing its ordinance. The City Council has scheduled a workshop on cell towers at 9 a.m. Aug. 27.

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5303.

Hillsborough commissioners make public hearings on new cell phone towers at schools mandatory 06/11/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 12, 2009 7:42am]
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