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Safety of cell towers near schools gets airing before Hillsborough County Commission

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Commission considered Thursday whether to amend a controversial land development code that allows some cell towers to rise on school grounds without public hearing.

More than a dozen people weighed in on the issue at the first of two public hearings. In addition to asking for greater public participation, they asked the board to require that cell towers be at least 1,500 feet from schools.

"Your bottom line, at a minimum, should be to protect our most precious assets: our children," said Victoria Spearow, a parent at Pride Elementary in New Tampa, the site of a 160-foot pole. "The industry cannot provide any conclusive evidence that these towers are safe."

But while 10 of the 14 speakers opposed cell towers, proponents of the wireless structures outnumbered them. Most were family, friends or business associates of Stacy Frank, the Tampa attorney who develops towers for Hillsborough County public schools and takes the brunt of attacks from parents who worry there's too many unknowns about towers and their risks.

Wearing green "Raise Revenue Not Taxes Help Our Schools" T-shirts, they said the concerns of parents were based in fear, not science.

"My mother in the 1960s would push the button and jump back five feet because she was scared of the microwave," said Alan Clendenin, a South Tampa man whose children are Hillsborough County public schools graduates. "I think that's a lot of what we're talking about today. There's a lot of fear of the unknown."

Nancy Ford, a teacher at Monroe Middle, a Title 1 school in Tampa, said "the opportunities and advantages that these cell towers bring to our children is a true blessing in an age of constant budget cuts."

"Additional funding today is nonexistent," she said. "I can't understand why an opportunity such as this for our children would be restricted or turned down. This issue should be determined by the individual school site."

With the exception of commissioner Mark Sharpe, none of the board members dived into the discussion, which has been divisive all school year long.

"I hate the fact that schools are put in a position where they have to figure out a way to get more money and the only way they can do it is a cell tower near a school," he said. "As an adult, I can make a decision for myself whether I think it is or is not dangerous. We're talking about little kids. They have no say. They're going to live with this years from now."

He and other county officials acknowledged that the law limits how much they can tighten current regulations.

"That area is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission," said assistant county attorney Adam Gormly. "It's not within the county's purview to get into that level of regulation."

County Commissioners will hold one more public hearing at 6 p.m. June 11 before deciding whether to amend the current code and require public hearings before cell towers are constructed.

Safety of cell towers near schools gets airing before Hillsborough County Commission 05/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 22, 2009 12:10am]
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