By a vote of 3-2, the Rappahannock County School Board Tuesday night (Jan. 13) voted against entering a controversial lease agreement with Community Wireless Structures (CWS), the Arlington company which had offered to construct a monopole for prospective mobile carriers on high school property.
After an often-emotional public comment session — and with three school officials facing a subpoena to testify today (Thursday, Jan. 15) in a related Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) case filed by Sperryville resident Eric Tollefson — the board declined to pursue the deal.
Citing safety concerns, Stonewall-Hawthorne member Larry Grove, Piedmont district’s Aline Johnson and Wakefield representative Chris Ubben voted against it. The two yes votes came from board chair John Lesinski and Jackson district’s Amy Hitt, each saying they believed the benefits would outweigh the risks, which they characterized as arguable.
Though the board’s vote put an end to the CWS plan — and a stack of copies of the previously unreleased 17-page lease agreement itself greeted the two dozen who arrived for the board’s hearing on the matter Monday — it was not clear at press time whether Tollefson’s petition would make it to the scheduled hearing today.
The circuit court petition seeks to compel the school board to release all communications related to the board’s negotiations with CWS on the cell tower, and alleges the board violated the VFOIA several times since CWS first made the offer last June.
A related motion — for a temporary injunction to prevent the board from voting on the matter Tuesday — was denied Monday morning in Washington by Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey W. Parker, who eventually agreed with the school board’s attorney, Jim J. Guynn Jr., that the VFOIA statute’s remedies did not give the court injunctive authority “to tell a legislative body, duly elected by the citizens of Rappahannock County, what it can consider at a different meeting.”
Parker denied the injunction, “with some degree of reluctance,” but agreed to Tollefson’s attorney David Konick’s request that the VFOIA petition itself be heard as soon as possible — scheduling that, over the Salem-based attorney Guynn’s objection that he had a conflicting case, for 1 p.m. today, and noting that there was “a strong prima facie case that the school board violated FOIA a number of times.”
“I wish to grant Mr. Konick quick relief in this case,” Parker said, “and if the school board doesn’t want to be present, that’s their prerogative.”
At the school board meeting Tuesday in the high school’s auditorium, eight citizens came to the podium to urge the board to “err on the side of caution,” as one of them put it, and reject the lease — which apparently would have provided $15,600 annually, plus additional fees as tenants (mobile carriers) were added to the tower, with 3-percent annual increases over the lease’s 10-year term. The term was automatically renewable for three additional terms, at CWS’s sole option, making it potentially a 40-year lease.
The lease also included a provision for a one-time $40,000 payment from CWS to the the school board within 30 days of the start of construction.
“How many of your teachers would sign a 40-year contract with a 3-percent annual increase?” asked Konick on Tuesday night, speaking of the lease agreement, after noting that he was “not appearing here tonight as counsel in the FOIA case, but as a taxpayer and a citizen of the Stonewall-Hawthorne district.
“And this lease, I had a chance to look at it briefly.” Konick said, “I really don’t know how to say it in any nicer terms. I’ve been practicing law for 38 years, and this is what I would call a one-sided piece of legal garbage. This contract would prejudice not only the board but the county in so many ways.”
“Your job is to provide a quality education and protect our children,” said Cole Johnson, a Woodville resident with two children at Rappahannock Elementary. “Why take the chance? This science [cell technology] is too new.”
Speaking of the science — as he has at previous school board hearings on the subject, along with others who questioned the health effects of cellular and microwave radiation — Mike Luthi of Sperryville noted that both the World Health Organization and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have begun to monitor the long-term effects more closely.
“On the 911 issue,” Luthi said, referring to Lesinski’s earlier presentation on the tower proposal, which included a letter from Richie Burke, the county’s emergency services manager, supporting any more extensive mobile network in the county for communications and public-safety reasons. “I’m a former first-responder, but I am not willing to put any child in danger. Cell tower radiation is, at this point, a ‘possible’ carcinogen.”
Parents Eric Plaksin and Deverell Pederson urged the board not to, as Pederson put it, “let a business proposition for a cell tower trump my child’s long-term safety.”
Board member Chris Ubben, a sheriff’s deputy and member of the Chester Gap fire department, said though he is himself a longtime first-responder, he had come to change his mind about the cell tower near the high school, and would vote against the lease — even though CWS proposal, patterned on an earlier approved but never built plan by AT&T, would have located the tower another 100 feet away from the school than AT&T had planned. “On the other side,” he added, “I am disheartened by some of the comments of some of our citizens.”
Grove, an official with the Sperryville fire department, said he felt similarly conflicted, but would vote against the lease. Johnson reiterated that she had never supported the proposal.
Lesinski said he’d hoped that the tower lease, which “was never going to benefit the school directly,” would engage CWS with the county and bring about a more thoughtful plan for overall cell coverage. Hitt said the issue had never been “about the money,” but what the school board could do to help the county, and its young people, “with technical issues.” She also noted that “95 percent of college campuses, including the Virginia Tech campus attended by one of her sons, have “huge clusters” of cell towers.