School board says no to cell phone tower
The board voted 5-3 not to approve a lease for a tower on the grounds of Marshall Middle School, 25 S. Pontiac Ave.
“We will re-evaluate our position and work with the city as best we can,” U.S. Cellular’s Ron Zechel said after the vote.
Zechel said the 120-foot-high tower is needed in that part of the city because there aren’t any tall structures on which to put the antennas.
It’s unclear what the company’s next step might be. It has tried three times before to site a tower without success. A city memorandum stated that all possibilities have been exhausted for a tower that could accommodate several cell companies.
Zechel said the board vote surprised him. He noted the board had given preliminary approval on Sept. 11, on a 7-1 vote.
Board member Tim Cullen said the board had give preliminary approval with the understanding that the city plan commission would hold a public hearing. The commission did so, but it didn’t allow comments about the possible health effects of radiation from the tower.
Federal law prohibits municipalities from rejecting a cell tower based on radiation concerns, and that was why city staff told the plan commission not to allow such testimony.
Cullen said he was shocked that residents were not allowed to speak their minds, and he wondered if the commission’s 4-3 vote would have gone the other way if the testimony had been allowed.
But Cullen’s main argument was that he, as a school board member, should be worrying about education issues and should not have to solve U.S. Cellular’s problems.
Board member Lori Stottler said she wanted the terms of the lease agreement changed so the school district could terminate it in case it was found that cell towers were harmful or if the district decided it needed the land for expansion or a softball field.
Stottler also objected to a provision that would have made the district and U.S. Cellular equally liable if there was an accident.
Resident Al Lembrich and others spoke to the board, warning of harm to health from cell-tower radiation.
The Federal Communications Commission has determined that cell towers pose no such risk, but Lembrich said some studies take an opposite view.
Asbestos and lead once were thought to be harmless but now are the subject of class-action suits, Lembrich said. “You want that liability?”
Marshall parent Darcy Worple came to the meeting after hearing similar concerns at her PTA meeting.
“I just don’t think it’s worth the potential risk to put the kids in that situation,” Worple said.
Another parent, Deborah Quinn, said she would be willing to pay higher school fees to offset the loss of the tower-lease revenue.
“You don’t need this tower as a minimal revenue source at the expense of our children’s health,” Lembrich said.
Board member Todd Bailey said the health effects are simply unknown.
“It’s just not worth it, to me, to put our kids at risk,” Bailey said.
Board member Debra Kolste said she consulted with family members in the engineering and medical fields, and they could find no proof of harmful health effects. She noted that she had heard some parents threatening to pull their children out of Marshall if the tower were built.
“I don’t like making a decision (based) on a scare tactic,” Kolste said.
How they voted
Voting to reject a tower lease: Todd Bailey, Tim Cullen, Kevin Murray, Lori Stottler and Dennis Vechinsky.
Voting against the motion: Debra Kolste, Amy Rashkin and Bill Sodemann.
Abstaining, saying he wanted to wait for more information: DuWayne Severson.
The proposed lease agreement with U.S. Cellular would have brought the Janesville School District $10,000 up front and $2,000 a month with increases of 3.5 percent each year on a 30-year lease. Additional tower users each would have paid $200 a month.
However, school board members said they had heard from parents who threatened to pull their children out of Marshall Middle School and place them in Milton schools if the tower were built. School board member Bill Sodemann calculated that if just four students switched districts, the loss of state funding would offset the cell-tower income.
Sodemann said he was very “uncomfortable” with that fact, but he voted to keep the tower, anyway, saying it would be hypocritical to use his cell phone and reject the tower.