Three cell tower opponents say fears are logical, justified

Tens of thousands have seen the YouTube video of a distraught Australian utility worker who rammed six cellular towers with an armored tank.

But you don't have to go that far to find people rallying against the proliferation of towers, some disguised as flagpoles or church crosses.

Something has to juice the phones we're using as early as grade school. In New York, New Jersey, California and certainly in Hillsborough County, residents are fighting back.

Citing medical research, largely from overseas and sometimes funded by the telecommunications industry, cell tower opponents warn of health effects, known and unknown, from the radio waves.

They gained some ground with the Hillsborough County Commission, which now requires a public hearing as part of the permit process. They didn't fare so well with Tampa City Council.

The Hillsborough County School District, meanwhile, continues to lease land for towers through an arrangement with South Tampa businesswoman Stacy Frank and her firm, Collier Enterprises II.

School principals get to give the final thumbs-up on each lease, which opponents also find to be bad policy.

Not all controversy surrounds the school leases. In Seffner, T-Mobile touched off a protest when it sought, and ultimately won, a special-use permit to place a tower at a YMCA.

The highest-profile opponents hail from a variety of backgrounds and communities. Here are just three of the activists, along with a response from those who wish to build towers.

Sasenarine Persaud, 51, Cross Creek

What we know about him: Persaud has two children in middle school and works in the financial sector. He is also a poet and has authored close to a dozen books, including In a Boston Night, a collection of poetry. He's a vegetarian and a Hindu and practices yoga. He traces his ancestry to India but has never been there.

How he got involved: At the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year, Persaud noticed a tower in front of Pride Elementary School, where his younger child was a student.

"It's a beautiful neighborhood," he said. "The back of the school used to be pastureland. There is a huge playground in front of the school. Across the school there are two playgrounds. And then just rising out of all of this, towering 160 feet over all of this — there is nothing like this in New Tampa — it is a monstrosity any way you look at it.

He was shocked, he said. "I was wondering: How did this tower get there? Were the parents notified? Was anybody notified?"

He did some research on the Internet. He found studies from various countries suggesting a cancer risk and other health issues. It intrigued him that studies from Europe and Israel were similar in outcome.

"There are a variety of ways it might affect you physically, mentally," he said.

His take on the policy issues: "What is even more alarming is the fact that the School Board was allowing a principal to make a decision.

"I mean, the principal has no right to be leasing public property for 20 or 30 years. You are not an elected official in the first place. What I think the School Board was doing was running away from their responsibility. You are giving away the rights for generations, literally, just to earn a few dollars."

On owning a cell phone: "I do have a cell phone. I don't use it often. In fact, I am going away from using it. Once in a while I do. I think we have it for my son." Both phones are usually turned off, he said. He insisted he is not against technology.

So where should the towers go? "Where people don't live." On the shoreline, he suggested, or perhaps on one of those wide setbacks along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

Denise Verrill, 40, Seffner

What we know about her: Married to a teacher, Verrill is the full-time mother of two young children. Originally from Long Island, she describes herself as a "hippie" who takes the kids to school in the trailer of a bicycle. It's a 10-mile trip, she said.

How she got involved: Verrill noticed a county hearing sign for a planned cell phone tower on the grounds of her neighborhood YMCA. Her kids' schools and her home are all within walking distance.

"If they put a tower there, within 1,000 feet (of my home), my family — or at least my children —will pretty much get almost 24-hour exposure," she said. The special-use permit application went before a zoning hearing master on Oct. 19 and was approved Nov. 6. Verrill and her neighbors have vowed to appeal.

Why the tower bothers Verrill: "It's a funny thing," she said. "For me it's almost innate. For me, I always knew that cell phones couldn't be a good thing." She never trusted microwaves either, although people kept reassuring her they were safe.

"What people don't pay attention to is the limits of exposure. No, they're not okay. I believe that the studies that have been done (say) children are more sensitive because they are developing DNA, it hasn't differentiated. Because of their size and shape and bone density, they are more easily affected."

She acknowledges the science is not conclusive.

"Science is not always at the forefront. Sometimes it lags behind ... it's only a matter of time, and in that case we should be prudent."

On using a cell phone: "I have a pay-as-you-go cell phone and I use it to call 911 — and my husband when I'm late."

So where should the towers go? "If they want to put it up on (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) in a shopping center, down on (State Road) 60, all right. Most of the YMCAs that I've found that put up cell towers are inner-city YMCAs."

And that's acceptable? "Inner city is mixed use. You're never going to get away from industrial. But I moved here because I wanted green spaces and trees and no towers."

Carrie Grimail, 43, South Tampa

What we know about her: The wife of a civil engineer, Grimail is the full-time mother of three children in elementary school. She has helped to organize a charity golf tournament for Coleman Middle School and served as legislative liaison for the Dale Mabry Elementary PTA, and been an assistant Girl Scout leader and a director in the Sunset Park Homeowners Association.

She resents any stereotype that paints her as a "desperate housewife" or a person of privilege.

"I chose to stay home with my kids, and so I live in a small house in a nice neighborhood, certainly not a ritzy neighborhood," she said. "I have to budget."

How she got involved: A neighbor was circulating a petition against a planned tower at Coleman Middle. Grimail was concerned at first with aesthetics and property values. "I thought it would be ugly," she said. "It would be so tall that it would dwarf the whole area."

Then she started reading about health concerns. "You get crazy stuff mixed in with the legitimate stuff," she said. But the more she read, the more she became convinced that the cancer risk should be taken seriously. And it bothered her that the school district would allow contractor Stacy Frank to speak as its expert.

"I thought it was so unfair, so crooked, so wrong on so many levels and I got mad," she said. "And I'm mad still at my elected officials."

Having defeated the planned tower at Coleman, she and fellow members of People Against Cell Towers at Schools have taken the fight countywide. They have sent School Board officials numerous documents from scientists who describe harmful effects from prolonged exposure to cell phone radiation.

"It's not a fear; it's not a concern. It's a fact, and our children are the guinea pigs, and greed is the reason this thing is going on," she said. She sees her mission, largely, as one of public awareness.

"It's like smoking," she said. "Thirty years ago, all our parents smoked. They smoked at airports, they smoked at restaurants, they smoked at the doctor's office, your doctor smoked. They smoked on TV and they smoked in the movies. Now people have learned to be more responsible."

Does Grimail use a cell phone? "Yes, but it's a choice I have to turn it on and I can turn it off. I can't do that with a cell tower."

Response from Stacy Frank, CEO of Collier Enterprises II

Stacy Frank, 55, is not just a cell tower developer. She is a lawyer and the daughter of Pat Frank, a former Hillsborough County commissioner and now the clerk of courts. Stacy also has political aspirations. She is running to replace Faye Culp, the Democratic representative of state House District 57, who must leave because of term limits.

When told about this article and asked to respond, Frank sent the following statement:

"The radio frequency technology used by the wireless industry has been in use for over 50 years. Prior to assigning these channels to the wireless industry, this technology was used exclusively for UHF television service.

"Hillsborough County and its school district mandate public hearings and parent meetings as a condition precedent to determining whether a school campus is eligible for a cell tower.

"Collier Enterprises II was awarded its contract with the school through a request for proposal, which is a public, competitive bidding process. This process is proscribed by law and is routinely used by the school district in selecting services.

"Collier Enterprises II specializes in developing wireless communications facilities in partnership with public and not-for-profit organizations. Our mission is to benefit those organizations by providing them with needed income during these tough economic times.

"In 2009, the school district will receive an annual income of $154,591. This amount will increase in 2010 to no less than $255,246, and is guaranteed for 10 years, totaling $2,905,322.

"Also benefiting from our services are the general cell phone-using public and emergency responders who need these facilities to better and safely communicate with one another and the public.

"In Hillsborough County, more than 68 percent of all emergency 911 calls are made by wireless phones."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or sokol@sptimes.com.

fast facts

Taking sides

Opponents of cell towers have compiled numerous studies and writings

at expelcelltowers.org and emrpolicy.org. A statement from the International Association of Firefighters is at iaff.org/hs/Facts/CellTowerFinal.asp.

Collier Enterprises, the school district contractor, offers these

sources for information about cell tower safety and the

permitting process: fcc.gov/oet/rfsafety/rf-faqs.html and

fcc.gov/Bureaus/Wireless/News_Releases/1999/nrwl9017.html.

T-Mobile recommends: t-mobile-takeaction.com/aboutwireless.html.

Three cell tower opponents say fears are logical, justified 11/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 19, 2009 3:31am]

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