2015-08-13 / Front Page

Cell Tower Concerns Aired

Abutters Express Cell Tower Health Fears
By James Merolla

The Newport School Committee will seek a public forum with three cellular giants renting signal space on a large cell tower on school property that about 30 residents said is adversely impacting their health and quality of life.

The three companies who rent space on the tower are AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile.

The concerned residents showed up at the Aug. 11 School Committee meeting, demanding to know why the tower was allowed to expand without community input.

Seven of the neighbors in the Fifth Ward spoke at the meeting, led by Steve Turcotte, who voiced concerns about emissions, noise and the “monstrosity of a tower” in their midst.

Turcotte pointed to a study by Donald L. Haes, an expert in cellular tower emissions from M.I.T. that was distributed by the schools Tuesday night to assuage abutter concerns. Haes concluded that emissions or radiation were well under acceptable federal guidelines and, thus, safe.

“To be honest with you, it’s almost [like] Philip Morris Co. writ- ing about the virtues of smoking,” said Turcotte. He said the tower has created a stir, visual pollution, and “real health concerns that are not addressed by Mr. Haes.”

“We need to have a public recording of these [said] emissions. As a community, we had no idea [of any additions or changes]. The add-ons [of antennas] completely changed, the structure changed,” said Turcotte. “If it falls, it is going to fall on Mary Nolan’s house. This is an unreasonable burden you have put on the community.”

Turcotte wanted to know why the expansion of the 70-foot tower and its ongoing presence wasn’t approved through proper planning or zoning channels which would offer opportunities for public comment. The school said that a former windmill was taken down in the spot 15 years ago because of noise pollution, but the basic tower structure remained in place.

Since that time, the schools, through the city, allowed the new cell tower to be rebuilt and expanded. The leases expire and will be up for renewal by the committee in June, November and December of 2017.

“It’s a looming structure that generates noise. We have questions about serious health concerns, and you can’t just dismiss that,” said Turcotte. “And it’s very, very loud.”

The three leases – in two- and three-year contracts – bring about $90,000 into the schools each year. This money, Superintendent Colleen Jermain said, allowed the schools to hire a vital teacher last year.

“Renting and leasing of the tower has been ongoing since 2000, nearly 15 years,” said Jermain. She said that Haes, who analyzed the tower and did a field examination, had great credentials, with more than 40 years in the field.

She added, “However, I’m not living under it. I’m not living next door to it. It’s been [up] 15 years at the very minimum. We can’t turn it around in one year, especially if we have legal obligations out there,” said Jermain. “We are here to listen. We want to help and support and do what we can.”

School Committee members David Carlin III and Robert Leary recently met with abutters in the Rogers High neighborhood to discuss the problem. Carlin said he lives about 1,000 yards from the tower.

“It’s a massive, ugly dinosaur affecting our quality of life when we go into our backyards. It’s an ugly monster that no one on this committee would want in their backyard,” said resident Leslie Foster. “$90,000 is not enough money to affect my quality of life.” She showed a photograph of the expanded tower with new aerials.

“Just because it’s been there all this time, doesn’t make it right. It looks like aliens from Mars. It’s not a pretty picture,” said Foster.

Resident Jim Nolan said gates were unlocked on an expanded stand/foundation around the base of the tower, a real danger to children. “I used to play army on that hill,” said Nolan who has lived in the area for 40-plus years. “It has grown to a monstrosity. It’s sad, it really is.”

Residents questioned current leases, but school legal counsel Neil Galvin said that the leases were appropriate and properly executed. If the leases were broken, Galvin added, the schools would be exposed to potential lawsuits.

“I will not support continuing these leases as they are,” said Leary. Galvin said he would hope that the three cellular vendors might respond to concessions and work with the committee, as they have already responded to community concerns in two separate letters.

Mary Nolan had one really big worry. “If the tower were to fall, it would fall directly on my home,” said Nolan, who has lived in the neighborhood for 45 years. “We’re concerned. If you allowed this, what will you allow next? There are tons of cell towers, going all the way up to Maine, and you will never see one as monstrous as this.”

Residents also were mortified by the noise made by the tower itself and a diesel generator which runs to gauge and power the tower on Mondays from 9 to 9:22 a.m., reaching decibel levels which they say exceed limits allowed in residential areas.

“This is outrageous. I would not have voted for a contract like this,” said Carlin, who was not on the committee when the contracts were renewed. “You are right about everything,” he said to the abutters.

Neighbors should have been notified whenever an extension or changes were made, added Carlin. He pointed to a certified letter which arrived in the superintendent’s office in March, notifying the schools that T-Mobile would be installing new antennas and other devices to the tower.

Jermain referred the letter to the city for proper permitting and the committee was unsure if it was properly signed off by city officials.

“We don’t have [all] the answers,” said School Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines. Committee member Rebecca Bolan said that 700 students, teachers, and residents are living under that tower. “From the health stance alone, I will not support it,” said Bolan.

“I supported the initial contract. I thought, ‘Well, the tower is there, and we might as well use it,'" added Gaines. “But I did not consider emissions or noise.”

Jermain is sending out letters to the cellular giants this week. “We have to let people know about the dangers of these towers, because these are not the only towers in Newport. If these are harmful, the others are harmful,” said Gaines.

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