Church could lease site near schools for cell tower

Grace Methodist Church site is between Fairfield Woods and Jennings schools

Anne Tack of Fairfield said she will do anything she can to keep her 12-year-old daughter safe from what she sees as dangers — including fight a cell tower going up across the street from her school.

And Tack might have to do just that.

The church council of Fairfield Grace United Methodist Church, located at 1089 Fairfield Woods Road, will vote March 30 on whether to sign a cell tower lease with AT&T.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE PLANS FOR THE PROPOSED SITE.

The agreement would give the telecommunications company the church’s permission to install a 100-foot-tall monopole cell phone tower, with a 50-foot by 50-foot base, on the back corner of its property. The location is across the street from Jennings Elementary School on one side and Fairfield Woods Middle School on another side. Jennings has 327 students, Fairfield Woods has 924. The church has a nursery school on its premises.

“It upsets me because we know [cell phone towers] emit radiation,” Tack said. “Why take the risk?”

She sees it as a no-brainer.

“Why in God’s name would we do that?” Tack said.

The law may be on the side of Tack and fellow cell tower opponents.

The state’s position

On June 15, 2012, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a law that prohibits the State Siting Council from approving a cell tower’s installation within 250 feet of a school or commercial daycare facility unless one of two conditions is met. Either the municipality’s chief elected official — for Fairfield that is First Selectman Michael C. Tetreau — must approve the location, or the Siting Council must determine that the tower will not have a significant adverse effect on the aesthetic or scenic quality of the location.

State Rep. Tony Hwang (R-134) was one of the lead advocates for the bill, and said his intention was clear.

“I don’t want that technology within close proximity of our children,” Hwang said this week.

He said there are many other options available and the uncertainty, the unknown risks of cell tower technology, should not be near young, developing children. He said he intends to talk to representatives from AT&T and to Tetreau to make his position clear.

“The ball is in the first selectman’s hand,” Hwang said.

Tetreau told The Fairfield Sun he will not OK the location.

“It would be very hard to approve it,” he said, in light of strong opposition.

Tetreau said that AT&T approached him this past October looking for a recommendation for a cell tower site in that neighborhood to fill a gap in service.

According to Tetreau, he did not offer the church as a suggested location.

“At the end of the meeting, they had not identified a site,” Tetreau said. “They were continuing their exploration.”

He said that if the church does sign the lease, the only way to stop the tower would be to find another location, which he would be happy to help identify.

Hwang does not think the Siting Council will approve the site if Tetreau says no.

“They would be hard-pressed to,” Hwang said.

State Rep Kim Fawcett (D-133) said she interprets the law to say that if, in this situation, the first selectman presents the Siting Council with an alternative location for the tower that provides the same coverage, the Siting Council must accept it.

“If we really don’t want it near children, we could reach out to someone on Black Rock Turnpike,” Fawcett said.

That way the revenue could go to a business owner.

She also said that the Black Rock Congregational Church does not have a

nursery school and is a possibility.

Fawcett also said it is possible that other technologies could provide a solution to a lapse in area cell service without having to erect a tower.

“There are multiple alternatives,” Fawcett said. “And I think the town has to reach out and see if there’s one that works.”

 Weighing the impact

Craig Michelson, chairman of the church council task force considering the proposal, said AT&T approached the church about the site.

“The task force was formed because we did not go out and seek this,” Michelson said.

One of the task force’s guidelines has been to make sure they are protected from liability.

Church officials also looked into the potential visual impact of the tower.

“It [would] be surrounded by trees,” Michelson said. “[The trees would be] 60- to 70-feet-tall.”

“We thought this was a minimal impact tower,” he added.

He recognizes that not everyone will agree.

“For some people, a 50-foot tower would be too high,” Michelson said.

Michelson said during its research, the task force found that groups such as the Federal Communications Commission and American Cancer Society have deemed there are no health risks associated with proximity to cell towers.

Tack said she doesn’t believe the government will always accurately represent health risks.

“The government has told us a lot of things are safe that are proven not to be safe,” Tack said. “They used to tell us cigarettes were safe.”

Tack also pointed to BPAs in plastic, baby aspirin, dyes in food, lead in paint, pink slime in meat and a number of different medications, among other things, as examples of the government saying something is safe when it’s not.

“The government doesn’t protect us,” Tack said.

A church matter

Michelson said he is not an expert, but the task force did research.

“We worked to gain understanding and knowledge so that we could make an informed recommendation,” he said.

And, he said, the task force would not agree to do this if members thought there was a danger.

“We’re not going to put our nursery school [children] at risk,” he said.

At this point, the tension around the proposal is building and there are passionate views among residents.

A Facebook group called “Fairfielders concerned about cell tower at Grace Methodist Church,” has been created and heated discussions are taking place online, with opinions both for and against the tower.

Until and unless the church council votes to sign the lease with AT&T, this is still a church matter, Michelson said.

And the church has reasons for wanting the tower, including money.

“It’s definitely a financial gain,” Michelson said, “for our ministries and mission projects.”

The tower could address a demand for better cell service.

“[AT&T] must think they have a need,” Michelson said.

Michelson said AT&T’s search area is confined to a quarter mile, or the neighborhood around the Grace Methodist Church.

“There’s a good chance you will see a tower in this area somewhere,” Michelson said. “Where’s a good location for it?”

Michelson said that people should do their own research on cell towers.

“It’s good for them, they should understand,” he said.

“I think they’ll find, if they go out and read both sides … I think they’ll find the health risk is non-existent,” he added.

If people want to use cell phones, he added, they need the towers.

“It’s like saying you want electricity but not power lines,” Michelson said.

A slow process

Rep. Brenda Kupchick (R-132) said she has been in touch with Tetreau, AT&T, other elected officials, neighbors of the church and parents of students at both Jennings and Fairfield Woods schools.

She has also been reading up on the state statute regarding cell towers.

“I [just] learned about the issue about two weeks ago,” Kupchick said.

Kupchick said she is working with AT&T to determine if there is a town-owned location in the neighborhood that would be less intrusive.

But if the church does sign the lease with AT&T, Kupchick advised constituents that there will be time for more people to weigh in.

“From what I understand, this process is not fast,” Kupchick said. “Before any decision is made there will be a vigorous review process complete with many public hearings.”

The Siting Council website, ct.gov/csc, lists 30 telecommunication sites in Fairfield. Three are monopoles.

An aerial schematic from AT&T shows in the lower right corner the proposed location of a cell tower on property owned by Grace Methodist Church, near Jennings and Fairfield Woods schools.

An aerial schematic from AT&T shows in the lower right corner the proposed location of a cell tower on property owned by Grace Methodist Church, near Jennings and Fairfield Woods schools.

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