A cell tower near Starkey Ranch K-8 is a step closer to reality, following a 3-2 vote by the Pasco County School Board to approve an easement needed to grant access to the tower.
The vote came after numerous speakers urged the school board to reject the request, from Pasco County, for the easement.
Pasco County has negotiated a cell tower ground lease agreement with Vertex to place a cell tower on shared-use property on the south side of the Starkey Ranch District Park’s football and soccer field.
The school district and county have a joint-use agreement involving Starkey Ranch K-8, the library and the county park.
News about the potential cell tower, however, unleashed a torrent of protests, with opponents turning out at the school board’s April 4 and April 18 meetings to voice their objections.
Many of the speakers wore red — symbolizing their call for the school board to stop the cell tower easement from moving forward.
Speaker after speaker raised questions about placing a cell tower so close to a school.
They asked the board to reject the request, or at the very least delay it so they could hear directly from experts in the field.
They cited research linking the radio-frequency emissions from cell towers to an array of health issues and they noted there are no studies that guarantee the towers are safe.
Opponents said evidence shows that children are especially vulnerable to harmful health impacts. They also noted that other countries and other localities have stricter rules on the placement of cell towers.
Ultimately, opponents said, placing the cell tower so close to a school is not a risk that is worth taking.
Like the opponents, school board member Al Hernandez said the proposed cell tower near a school is problematic.
He told his colleagues: “I cannot in good conscience put our community in a potential health risk.”
School board member Alison Crumbley agreed: “I can’t feel comfortable if I don’t know, 100%, that it’s safe. With the technology that has come along in the last few years, we just don’t know. It’s stronger, more powerful.”
But School Board Chairwoman Megan Harding and board colleagues Colleen Beaudon and Cynthia Armstrong expressed different concerns.
Harding said she’d done extensive research into the issue and had listened to people both for and against the cell tower.
She also visited Starkey Ranch K-8, and walked around inside the school and outdoors. She discovered there were many areas on the campus where the cell service was weak.
She also drove around the neighborhood, and while driving through had a call she was on drop twice. She also learned that she had missed some text messages, while on campus.
She said she didn’t want to downplay the concerns raised by opponents, but said there’s also an issue of campus security.
Beaudoin raised that concern during the April 5 meeting.
Armstrong noted that she also heard from people on both sides of the issue.
She said being able to effectively communicate is crucial. “We’ve had serious medical emergencies,” she said.
Or, there might be a case of someone suspicious being seen hopping over a fence at a school, she added.
“To me, that’s a threat that we have every single day,” Armstrong said.
Both Crumbley and Hernandez said additional efforts could be made to find an alternative location for the cell tower, that is farther away from children.
Hernandez said the issue has never been about money. The amount of payment for the leasing agreement is miniscule, compared to the district’s overall budget, he said.
It’s a debate about safety — about the potential threat caused in the short-term, or in the long-term, he said.
Pasco Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning made his recommendation crystal clear.
“I understand the concerns of our parents with something that may or may not ever happen.
“You can find research that supports cancer-causing radiation. You can find research that debunks all of those issues about cancer-causing radiation.
“What you can’t debunk, and I hesitate saying this, but as a superintendent I have a moral imperative, and that is to keep our kids safe from — what I know we stand a greater risk of happening, and that is — active threats on campus,” Browning said.
The school board’s vote followed Browning’s remarks.
The crowd of opponents was clearly dissatisfied as they left the board’s chambers, with someone in that crowd promising the board: “We’re not done. We’re not going anywhere. We’ll be back. We’re going to fight you.”
Published April 26, 2023