Bringing down the towers: Cell antenna misstep causes district to backtrack on project
By Marsha Sutton
San Dieguito Union High School District’s plan – and the school board’s initial approval – to place cellular antennas at Canyon Crest Academy stunned many in the CCA community, some of whom were suspicious of the timing and the lack of notice.
If not for a front-page story in this newspaper on July 5 that triggered protests from many quarters, Sprint/Nextel’s agreement with SDUHSD to erect three arrays of four antennas each on top of classroom buildings at CCA would have been a done deal at the school board’s July 26 meeting. It was that close.
It’s an uncharacteristic misstep for a school district that is generally regarded, justifiably so, as open and transparent, communicative and approachable.
In two fundamental ways, the district and school board members failed the community. First, by not informing stakeholders of the plan. Second, by treating this project as just another ordinary business deal, without regard for the safety of students and employees in close daily proximity to radiation emissions of undetermined consequence to human health.
The lack of notification is most baffling. If it was not intentional deception, then incompetence is the only other explanation. Neither is admirable.
Eric Dill, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of business services, insisted this was no deliberate attempt to sneak it past the community.
“I want to dispense with the notion that we were trying to hide or push something through during the summer because nobody would be around,” Dill said. “We’ve heard that accusation a couple of times in the last weeks, and nothing could be further from the truth.”
Dill said all procedures were followed properly, including hosting a public meeting that was requested by the Carmel Valley Planning Board, which first reviewed the project on April 26.
“From what I understand, this public meeting wasn’t even a requirement of moving this forward,” Dill said. “We enter into lots of business arrangements where we don’t go out and notify the entire world.”
John Addleman, SDUHSD’s director of planning and financial management, said a notice was placed in the May 23 issue of the North County Times, calling a public meeting at Canyon Crest Academy for June 1.
Dill said the district chose the North County Times to reach a wider audience than just Carmel Valley. But since the overwhelming majority of students attending Canyon Crest Academy live in the southern portion of the school district where the North County Times is not widely read, the obscure notice did not serve to alert the community.
The Carmel Valley Planning Board, in a letter to the district objecting to the project, called the North County Times “a newspaper with little circulation among the CCA community.”
“The North County Times is the place where we put all those kinds of public notifications,” said SDUHSD superintendent Ken Noah last week. “But when I learned that there had not been information provided [to the Carmel Valley area], I think that was an error on our part. We should have.”
Nevertheless, the June 1 meeting took place, led by Sprint representative Becky Siskowski and SDUHSD’s Addleman, and attended by a grand total of three audience members, all CCA students.
Besides parents, teachers and other staff members also were unaware of the project. One CCA teacher told the Carmel Valley Planning Board that he never knew about the issue or the June 1 meeting.
CCA’s principal Brian Kohn never mentioned the project to his staff, perhaps because he thought the issue was “still in the discussion phase.”
“I knew they were talking about it and that the project was out there,” he said. But he did not know in advance, he said, that the board was to approve a resolution of intent on June 21 to grant Sprint the CCA easement for the project. Nor did he know in advance that the board was to give Sprint final approval at its July 26 meeting.
Although he was not told of the district’s past months’ progress on the matter, Kohn was reluctant to comment “because it’s hard to know where they were [in the process],” he said.
Normally, those at the district office guiding the project “would probably at a certain point come to me and say, ‘Here’s what we’d like you to do and help us with the communication piece,’” he said.
Except they didn’t.
Nor were teachers informed by their union leaders, who also didn’t know in advance.
Bob Croft, president of the San Dieguito Faculty Association, SDUHSD’s teachers union, said by email, “I have full confidence in Supt. Noah and our board that they would thoroughly discuss, review all relevant research, and seek the appropriate feedback before proceeding with any such option.”
Except they didn’t do that either.
Croft was diplomatic in his guarded statement but his confidence was misplaced, since district officials admitted they didn’t let him know, contending that notification to teachers for a simple “business decision” was not necessary.
Ron Tackett, head of SDUHSD’s classified employees’ union, California School Employees Association, also was never contacted by the district to inform him of the plan to erect cell towers at CCA.
“I’m surprised that I wasn’t notified,” said Tackett, whose association consists of non-certificated employees (non-teachers). “I would think with a sensitive issue like that, that the right thing would have been to notify all the stakeholders.”
Tackett distinguished between a regular business decision and one that has the potential to affect the health of staff and students.
Tackett said if he’d been made aware of the potential deal he would have notified his members so they could act on the information if they chose. “But the notification part, that certainly didn’t happen,” he said.
Health and safety concerns
In 2005, the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics confirmed that children are especially sensitive to all electromagnetic fields because their developing nervous systems are fragile, their brain tissues more conductive and their smaller skeletons more easily penetrated by the waves.
The official position by the Federal Communications Commission is that evidence is inconclusive that cell tower radiation has negative health and safety effects. “Inconclusive” is the operative word. This is vastly different than saying there is conclusive evidence of no negative health effects.
“Prudent avoidance” is generally advised by experts under such circumstances and is a risk management principle stating that efforts to minimize potential risks should be taken when the magnitude of the risks is unknown. The principle was proposed in 1989 in the context of electromagnetic radiation safety.
Despite this, at the June 21 school board meeting a resolution passed 5-0, with little discussion by board members according to Dill, of the intent to grant Sprint an easement to erect and operate three sets of four antennas each “encapsulated within the exterior wall systems” at Canyon Crest Academy.
The June 21 approved resolution was a first reading. The second and final reading was originally scheduled for the following month, at the board’s July 26 meeting, which would have sealed the deal.
This nearly happened, and likely would have, had it not been for the efforts of a few members of the community, notably Laura Copic, CCA parent and member of the Carmel Valley Planning Board, who was alarmed enough to bring the issue front and center.
On June 28, the second time the issue came before the Carmel Valley Planning Board, the project was voted on and unanimously opposed. [see sidebar below]
Despite this, the City of San Diego approved the project on July 2.
“Our review of the project is for compliance with the regulations of the Municipal Code, and based on the project’s compliance with these regulations, the project was approved,” said Alex Hempton, associate planner for the City of San Diego’s Development Services Department, in an email.
Hempton referenced the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which prohibits cities from denying a wireless communication project based on health-related issues. (The travesty of this clause in such a far-reaching piece of legislation cannot be overstated.)
The city’s approval grants Sprint a permit to “construct, operate and maintain a Wireless Communication Facility (WCF) consisting of 12 panel antennas mounted on an existing school building behind radio-frequency transparent screening with equipment located adjacent to the building,” according to the city’s permit for the project.
The plan for the 12 antennas shows four antennas on the north side of the “F” building which houses classrooms, and eight antennas on the “G” building – four on the west side and four on the south side. The F and G buildings surround the students’ food court. Plans call for an equipment box installed next to the G building.
Dill said the walls on both buildings extend above the roof line and the antennas would be mounted on top of the roofs but behind the parapet walls, so Sprint “won’t have to worry about putting up a fake tree, having the big ugly tower, those sorts of things.”
The focus on aesthetics stems from the Telecom Act which allows government agencies to object to the placement of cell towers based on visual but not health impacts. Hence, such deep, heartfelt concern by providers for aesthetics.
All this for only $2,800 per month, or $33,600 per year – about the price of half a teacher. With an automatic increase of 3 percent annually, Dill said the revenue would come to about $625,000, but over 15 years.
Carmel Valley resident and CCA parent Richard Kahn, in a letter to Noah dated July 13, objected to the proposed deal, saying, “It looks like a sneak attack from the public perspective. This behavior is not what would be expected from the San Dieguito School District who has in the past had a reputation of being highly respectful of the community and their sentiments.”
Kahn, a professional in the field of customer protection and safety from products that emit various forms of radiation, said that FCC standards in the United States are “lenient compared to other countries where standards are up to 10,000 times stricter.”
Citing growing opposition in the community, Kahn wrote, “We cannot understand the school district’s decision to push forward their project in defiance of unanimous opposition by [the] CV Planning Board.”
Noah, according to Kahn, never replied to his letter until weeks later, when, unbelievably, Noah wrote, “I am baffled by your reference to ‘growing opposition.’ My question is, ‘To what?’”
After recognizing at last that there was indeed “growing opposition” to the project as news spread, Noah backed off from the plan to present the final resolution to the school board at its July 26 meeting. It was tentatively scheduled to come back to the school board at its Aug. 16 meeting, but that too was delayed, this time indefinitely.
Noah, who expressed surprise at the reaction of the community, said, “My preference at this point, and what I’m directing, is I want it off the agenda for the time being.”
The next step, he said, would be “to have a conversation with the board about whether or not pursuing an opportunity to put cell arrays or cell towers on campuses is something we want to pursue.” This discussion, he said, would be general in nature and not specific to any one school site.
If yes, conditions for such projects and reviews of studies and scientific evidence examining health and safety risks would be discussed. If the board rejects the idea completely, “then that would come off the table for future consideration for a revenue enhancement for the district,” Noah said.
Gosh, wouldn’t if have been nice for board members to have had this conversation before voting unanimously to proceed with the CCA/Sprint project?
Although the revenue from this project was already listed in a board report Noah gave to trustees in June, it has now been removed.
What’s frightening about this backpedaling is that it indicates that there was no discussion around health and safety considerations prior to this near-deal, given that the project has been in the works for two years and that the money was already being counted.
Nevertheless, the matter will not be brought before the board again in the immediate future. Not exactly a mea culpa, but at least the district appeared to be embracing the precautionary principle of “prudent avoidance” regarding radiation emissions near children, and has promised to provide better notification to the community next time.
Congratulations to all those who brought this project down. Score one for community activism.
Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com.
Sidebar -Carmel Valley Planning Board’s letter
opposing Sprint project at high school
At the Carmel Valley Planning Board’s July 26 meeting, the board voted to submit a letter to the San Dieguito Union High School District explaining its unanimous opposition to the proposed installation of 12 cellular antennas at Canyon Crest Academy and urging SDUHSD superintendent Ken Noah and school board members to “consider the community’s concerns before entering into this agreement and any future agreements for wireless communication facilities.”
In the letter, the planning board cited a lack of due diligence in notifying the community of the project, noting that a May 23 notice in the North County Times was inadequate.
“We don’t feel the school’s duty to notify impacted parents, teachers and students was fulfilled,” the letter reads.
The planning board also recommended that the district install antennas “away from classroom buildings and well-trafficked parts of the school where students and teachers might encounter long-term low-level exposure.”
Although cities and community planning boards cannot by law oppose such projects based on health and safety factors, “the school district is not prohibited from using good judgment in the prudent placement of these facilities on their own property,” read the letter.
The letter referred to resolutions passed by the Los Angeles Unified School District that acknowledge “considerable debate and uncertainty within the scientific community as to the potential health effects to individuals, especially children, from exposure to extremely low frequency electromagnetic and radio-frequency radiation ...”
Noah said the letter opposing the project from the Carmel Valley Planning Board carried “some weight” but “my concern is that the Carmel Valley Planning Board stepped out of its statutory lines of authority in terms of making the recommendation. They are supposed to rule on certain criteria, and they went to what they perceived to be a safety issue.”
Carmel Valley Planning Board member Laura Copic, a leading opponent of the project, said the representative for Sprint was asked to consider placing the towers away from classroom buildings, on the far corners of the athletic fields. At Torrey Pines High School, for example, a cellular tower exists but is located by the tennis courts, well away from all classrooms.
Copic was told that it was the school district that did not want to consider other locations. But Eric Dill, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of business services, said it was Sprint that chose the classroom buildings, after rejecting the fields and the parking lot.
The field area was eliminated, Dill said, because there is no power or existing buildings or stadium lights upon which to mount the towers, so towers would need to be constructed, camouflaged and powered. The parking lot was also rejected for height limitations and lack of sufficient power.
“So they settled on their ideal location of being on top of the buildings,” Dill said. Primary reasons were the access to existing power and a building design that hides the equipment from view behind roof parapets.
“That’s really a matter of aesthetics,” Dill said. “Those are things that the planning boards generally don’t want. They don’t want to see them.”
Dill said the school district has been in discussions with Sprint for about two years on this project. “They’ve been looking at Canyon Crest Academy and where potential sites could be and where they would be most beneficial for the coverage that’s needed in that area,” he said. Although neither the Solana Beach School District nor the Del Mar Union School District have wireless equipment on their school sites, Dill said other school districts have accepted cell towers and antennas, including Poway.
“We’re not breaking any new ground here,” he said.