Pasco commission rejects cell tower at school, begins search for alternative

Parents pack commission meeting to raise questions about potential risks to students.
The West Pasco Government Center is seen in New Port Richey.
The West Pasco Government Center is seen in New Port Richey. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 24|Updated May 25

The fight over a new cellphone tower at the Starkey Ranch K-8 School landed at the feet of Pasco County commissioners this week, and after two hours of parent pleas to deny the approval, commissioners decided to find a better location.

Mothers pushing their infants in strollers, fathers questioning whether a new tower is needed and parents with health care backgrounds inundated commissioners with their worries about how a tower could impact their children’s future health and welfare.

During a lunch break and some behind-the-scenes conversations, Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, whose family name is shared by the Starkey Ranch community, pitched the idea of delaying any decision on a lease at the school until a suitable site in a nearby park could be found.

Kathryn Starkey, Pasco County commissioner
Kathryn Starkey, Pasco County commissioner [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The county will have to bid out the project again, so commissioners unanimously agreed to a 120-day delay to allow that process to play out. Starkey also reached out to Ray Gadd, deputy superintendent of schools for Pasco, about sharing the revenue from the cell tower with the school system. The 27-year lease came with a base annual payment of $23,400.

She said that she shared some of the concerns raised by law enforcement and school officials that there is a weak cell signal in some areas around the school, which presented a safety concern, so a close site was needed. Starkey also said the cellphone company, Vertex Development LLC, was willing to consider another site in the area.

The cellphone tower was to be placed on land jointly owned by the county and the Pasco County School District, a plan that was in the works even before the school opened in 2021. Two meetings before the school board also drew comments from parents who worried about the health of their children and the safety of having such a structure near a school. In late April, a divided school board agreed to the project and sent the final decision on the lease to the county.

Starkey Ranch K-8 School, which opened in the 2021-22 academic year
Starkey Ranch K-8 School, which opened in the 2021-22 academic year [ Pasco County Schools ]

Much of the parent concern about the cell tower focused on the argument that the radiation such towers produce could cause cancer.

Starkey Ranch resident Monique Pineault urged commissioners to find another option, saying there is litigation underway across the country focused on the health impacts of cell towers. The proposed tower at the school, she said, was literally a stone’s throw from her home.

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“I’m a cancer survivor,” she said. “I don’t want a cellphone tower in my backyard.”

Certified nurse practitioner Victoria James, who has a child in first grade, told commissioners that she sold her home in Starkey Ranch two weeks ago after the school board voted to go ahead with the tower. “Research shows that 5G towers are carcinogenic to humans with the pediatric population especially vulnerable,” she said. “No amount of radiation should be considered safe.”

Commissioners said they too had been doing research and found the lack of any definitive answers concerning.

“There’s no clear consensus,” said commission chairperson Jack Mariano. He said the county had options, and that even the county’s agreement with the school district over the jointly held property said that they could approve leases for cell towers but had no obligation to do so.

Commissioners said they were happy to find a way to meet everyone’s needs.

“I’m glad to have a compromise,” Mariano said.