TAMPA — With nary a public comment, Hillsborough commissioners in the fall altered language in its county land-use code.
The amendment, which will allow some schools to erect cell phone towers without public hearings, went into effect Feb. 1, despite objections from county planners.
Parents who worry the towers expose their children to harmful radio frequency emissions are fuming, and they plan to make their disapproval known at today's County Commission meeting.
"The changes make schools the easiest places in the county to site cell towers," said Carrie Grimail, one of the parents instrumental in blocking a proposed tower at South Tampa's Coleman Middle School earlier this month.
Backers of the modified code said it establishes stricter and more specific guidelines for towers on larger, high school-sized campuses. They also said it is meant to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public.
Now, principals of schools with campuses at least 5 acres in size can avoid a hearing, but must submit letters of support and the 100- to 200-foot towers must maintain a distance of 250 feet from certain zoning districts.
"The standards go above and beyond what is required on other properties," said Jim Porter, a Tampa lawyer who petitioned for the change on behalf of his client, Collier Enterprises II.
Since 2006, Collier has had exclusive rights to broker deals between Hillsborough schools and cell phone companies.
In recent months, the company has been at the center of debates over cell towers at Coleman Middle in South Tampa, Pride Elementary in New Tampa and Cimino Elementary in Valrico.
Some parents feel schools are no place for them.
While Porter and company president Stacy Frank said the amendment was never an attempt to bypass public hearings, Hillsborough zoning administrator Paula Harvey said "we understood that to be part of the intent."
She said the county staff recommended denying the change "because we thought it was going to create a problem in residential areas — problems like we're having today."
Some schools in residential zoning districts could move towers a few hundred feet to meet the new minimum setback requirements and potentially avoid a hearing. But others in the same area without the wiggle room would be required to hold one.
"It wasn't an even playing field for all cell towers," Harvey said. "There you are in a residential area and we have different processes of review."
Hillsborough school officials said they supported the amendment to help streamline and expedite the process for schools interested in getting cell towers and the financial benefits that come with them.
"We think that's reasonable because there are many regulations and safeguards in place still, and we will still be required to go through hearings in the future, except in certain circumstances," district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.
Harvey and Porter said there was no public dissent at any of the seven public meetings on the topic, which Grimail acknowledged.
"The problem was none of us knew what was going on, because it wasn't directly affecting us," she said. "The people who live in the neighborhoods were thinking that the elected officials would protect us so, yeah, we didn't show up. But now we will."
Times staff writer Letitia Stein and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.