Legal ruling supports school cell tower ban

New law could void T-Mobile Randallstown pact

June 22, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN REPORTER

A finding by the state attorney general's office suggests that Maryland law could be changed to ban cell phone towers from public school properties in Baltimore County, a state senator assured a group of residents hoping to thwart plans for a tower at Randallstown High School.

It is possible to draft such legislation in a constitutionally sound format, and possibly apply it retroactively to void a contract between the school system and T-Mobile, state Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin told about a dozen residents at a community meeting this week in Randallstown.

The Maryland General Assembly could "prevent a board from leasing school property to a private party for private purposes," Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch wrote in a six-page response to Zirkin. "To avoid any contention that the proposed legislation unreasonably discriminated against providers of wireless service, I would recommend that any legislation be aimed at the leasing of property to any private entity."

Legislators and community activists have been urging the county school board to scrap plans for a 110-foot cell phone tower to be built at Randallstown High School on Offutt Road - a project that would pump an estimated $450,000 into the school system. Opponents are concerned about possible health risks associated with the towers, and are angry that the school board approved the plan without public comment.

Until 2004, state law prohibited school systems from leasing property to private companies.

In September 2005, the county school board agreed to lease property at Randallstown High to T-Mobile so the company could build the cell phone tower near the school's tennis court. The 25-year lease agreement requires T-Mobile to pay the school system $1,500 a month.

The tower would be mounted atop an existing light stand and would be surrounded by a fence, though not an electrified fence as some community leaders had been told, according to T-Mobile spokeswoman Jane Builder. She has said that the tower could be built within two weeks of the resolution of the legal issues.

Community advocates say they are worried about health risks and safety hazards, concerns they say they were unable to express to the school board.

Resident Aaron Plymouth last year appealed the county zoning board's decision to permit the tower. The appeals panel is scheduled to deliberate July 18 and render its ruling soon after.

Zirkin told the residents at a meeting Tuesday night in Randallstown that he would seek an injunction to stop T-Mobile's plans if the county's zoning appeals panel rules next month in favor of the wireless phone company. He added that regardless of the panel's decision, he plans to introduce legislation during the 2008 General Assembly to ban the towers from school grounds.

Zirkin said that in light of "conflicting evidence" about the health hazards of cell phone towers, "we should err on the side of caution when talking about something that's potentially unsafe to students and around students."

Ella White Campbell, executive director of the Liberty Road Community Council, said this week that the group is awaiting the ruling of a zoning board appeals panel before deciding whether further action is warranted.

Campbell said that she and state Sen. Delores G. Kelley recently met with schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston in the hopes of persuading the school system to change its mind about the T-Mobile deal. She declined to elaborate on the results of that meeting.

gina.davis@baltsun.com

Read the Sun education blog at www.baltimoresun.com/classroom

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