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Parents fight plans for disguised wireless tower at elementary school

More than 100 parents and other community residents are fighting plans for a wireless tower to be constructed on the grounds of a public elementary school, one of the first to stem from a master agreement signed last year by the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.

The 99-foot pole, to be constructed for Verizon at Piney Orchard Elementary School by Milestone Communications, was to be the subject of a public meeting sponsored by Milestone on Monday in Odenton. Up to four other wireless providers could also lease space on the tower.

“It is 30 feet above any (roof) in our neighborhood. It is very visible from many points in the community,” said Jennifer St. Clair, a parent of students at Piney Orchard, who said she opposes the structure. “It’s reducing our property value because I live right next to the school. [How] is this going to impact me financially?”

St. Clair also said she is concerned about potential health risks for children and households nearby from low-frequency waves emitted by the towers. About 130 residents and school parents have signed a petition to stop the wireless tower construction.

The board approved the master agreement with Reston, Va.-based Milestone on July 23, 2012, for wireless tower construction on any of its school sites.

That deal has the potential of providing the school system with $3.6 million in revenue from leases on 15 school sites, said system spokesman Bob Mosier. The school system would receive monthly rent totaling 40 percent of the total wireless lease as well as a one-time fee.

Each proposed tower would come before the school board “for review,” Mosier said. The Piney Orchard proposal was approved by the board last month and would provide the school system with about $12,000 per year, per carrier, plus one-time fees of up to $45,000. The school is located at 2641 Strawberry Lake Way.

“This undertaking is not unlike those in other jurisdictions in Maryland, and is a win-win situation which provides cell phone users with better signals and our school system with additional revenue,” Mosier said in an emailed statement.

“These towers can be designed in ways that are aesthetically pleasing and provide a great service for communities in which they are located. The process has been very transparent, and the steps involved provide ample opportunity for public input.”

One other tower at Broadneck High School is currently proposed by Milestone. That project is in the county approval phase, Mosier said.

The tower planned for Piney Orchard will be disguised as a pine tree, said Sean Hughes of NB&C Services, a Hanover-based engineering firm working with Milestone.

“We are going to try to let it blend in. The plan is to tuck it up against existing tall trees,” Hughes said.

He added that the wireless tower is needed because of an increase in usage of smart phones, computers and tablets in the area, requiring more of a signal.

“Near Piney Orchard, there are a lot of homes and in order to keep up with that demand, you have to (have a stronger signal). We’re trying to find a solution here.”

St. Clair said she was unaware that the county school board had passed a master agreement with Milestone Communications last year that paved the way for construction at any public school.

She is hoping to halt all wireless tower construction on school property in Anne Arundel County, she said.

“There is the stigma of the health concerns from a majority of people that you ask about it. Research has found that there are some other concerns,” St. Clair said. “And, our community will get no money. The school itself will get no money. The second issue is having this monstrosity in our neighborhood.”

Hughes said wireless towers are increasingly being constructed on church properties, golf courses and on public school properties in Maryland, including school sites in Montgomery County and, in the future, in Prince George’s County.

School boards see the construction as a way to raise additional revenues. In addition, Hughes said, Milestone will pay property taxes to the local jurisdiction for a portion of the property that it leases.

What if the parents protest the wireless tower at Piney Orchard?

“We’re at the beginning part of the process. We are looking to share information at the meeting, and then if we continue forward filing for approval through the county government approval process. There is a need for at least Verizon in this neighborhood. And so somehow, that need will be met.”