The DeKalb County Board of Education's plans to build cell phone towers at nine schools countywide, including and , violates a county ordinance, and building permits for those projects should be denied, county commissioners said Thursday.
In a letter to county CEO Burrell Ellis, signed by all seven commissioners, the board said the school system and T-Mobile are illegally trying to circumvent county zoning regulations through a state law that says government property is exempt from local zoning ordiances if the property is being used for a governmental purpose. The letter represents the first public pushback from county officials on an issue that has enflamed some vocal residents of communities across the county where the towers have been approved.
The county already has an ordinance banning cell phone towers from single-family residentially zoned land. The ordinance was passed to preserve residents' safety and the value of their property, the letter said.
But because the school system has agreed to build the cell towers primarily for the rent money and fees T-Mobile would pay them over the course of a 30-year contract, the use is proprietary rather than governmental, the commissioners said. Essentially, the letter said, the towers would benefit the school system and T-Mobile, not the public.
"Rather than being passive regarding DeKalb County zoning regulations and ignoring citizen complaints about cell towers in residential zones and on school property, we recommend DeKalb County take a more active role to protect the interest of citizens and uphold adopted ordinances," the letter said. "We should not ignore our ordinance unless it has been proven in court that we must ignore our adopted policy."
Despite the letter, the school system is not backing off its agreement with T-Mobile or its plans to build the towers and generate tens of thousands of dollars in immediate revenue and reportedly up to $2 million in rent over the course of the contract, school system spokesman Walter Woods said.
"We respect our partners with the [board of commissioners], and we will work with them as T-Mobile proceeds with its building permits," he said. "We have every expectation that our agreement with T-Mobile is completely appropriate."
T-Mobile is still reviewing the siting of towers on the school sites and has not submitted permit applications to the county, though that process is expected to begin at an as-yet-undetermined point this spring, Woods said.
The debate over cell phone towers at schools in DeKalb County has been at a slow boil since 2010 when plans were initially announced. The school board was pursuing towers at 12 schools, but three were removed during its approval vote in July, including one from the now-defunct . In addition to Briarlake Elementary and Lakeside High, T-Mobile also plans to erect a tower at Margart Harris Comprehensive School in Briarcliff as well.
Parents and residents near Briarlake and Margaret Harris have protested the towers, citing everything from raditation safety concerns to the towers' effect on property values. Lakeside High parents, however, have not been as vocal, and school officials there have said they welcome the tower because cell phone reception at the school is poor – a possible safety issue in an emergency, Principal Joe Reed has said.
But many parents have complained that the school board approved their tower plan over the summer when many families are out of town or out of the loop on school issues since children are not attending. Some schools, including Briarlake Elementary, have formed groups out of protest and considered legal options. One lawmaker, state Rep. Karla Drenner, D-District 86, has introduced legislation designed to prevent any future agreements like the one between T-Mobile and the school system.
The school board and the school system, so far, have been unreceptive to protestations since their approval vote. Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson continues to look ahead, Woods said.
"The decision was made well before her administration," she said. "Her point of view is that we need to focus on decisions yet to be made."