GAITHERSBURG – The City Council advanced a controversial proposal to permit Verizon to construct a cell tower at Morris Park over the objections of its most junior member and several city residents.
The council passed a resolution Monday to authorize City Manager Tony Tomasello to immediately execute an agreement with Verizon to construct the tower.
Council Member Robert Wu expressed concern about the lack of information regarding several aspects of the proposal.
“I’ll be frank, I’m vexed, and I have a lot of consternation about the way the Council is handling this issue,” Wu said.
“It’s hard for me to say that because I’ve enjoyed getting to know everyone on the Council over the last six months and I have the utmost respect for you gentlemen…to be frank, I think you have blinders on here with respect to this issue…I don’t believe this has been explored; I don’t believe you have a firm grasp on the issues related to the cell tower, and that troubles me.”
Wu noted a lack of public notice with regards to the project, saying he himself did not know the issue would be on the calendar until the previous night.
“My day job is I review administrative records for agencies to view that their actions rational,” said Wu, who works as an attorney for the Government Accountability Office. “I can state 100 percent that the information that you’ve put to the public, that’s even been put to me is not sufficient to be making a rational determination…we need coverage data, we need to know why they want to put this tower here.”
Several area residents echoed Wu’s concerns and testified against the project.
Residents said they were worried about radiation from the cell phone towers potentially harming their health, particularly their its proposed location near Summit Hall Elementary School and public baseball diamonds.
“Cell towers are HAZMAT locations,” said Janis Sartucci, a member of the Parents Coalition of Montgomery County.
“They store large quantities of hazardous chemicals. In Montgomery County, they are required to register with the fire department. You all have done nothing to determine what will be stored at this site, how it will be stored, and let me move on to my next point which is that it turns out this is a floodplain, so you’re actually looking at storing hazardous materials in a floodplain…we know Morris Park floods; we’ve got pictures on Facebook of it flooding.”
“One of the things that we don’t feel the Council has done a good job on at this time is educating and engaging the community about the cell tower,” said Oscar Alvarenga, PTA president of Summit Hall Elementary.
“I’m not one of those guys who thinks I should walk around with tin foil on my head because there’s a cell tower. I understand the purpose of cell towers, I understand how we benefit from them, but there’s also a lot of concern, a lot of misinformation out there.”
Alvarenga also said the lack of public notice bothered him, adding no one contacted his school’s principal and teachers.
“If we’re going to be concerned about pesticides, we should also be concerned about what’s radiating nearby,” Alvarenga said.
Other Council members defended the proposal.
Council Vice President Michael Sesma cited the example of Carl Henn, a Rockville sustainability activist who died in 2010.
He said when Henn collapsed, his friends were unable to quickly call for help due to a lack of cell coverage in the area.
“The suggestion that officials would vote against the many passionate people who have showed up simply because we have a political death wish doesn’t make sense,” said Council Member Ryan Spiegel.
“Those of us who are going to vote in favor of this proposal are going to do so because they believe it’s the right thing to do. We can disagree reasonably, but it’s not because we’re trying to fulfill some conspiracy theory. It’s not because we care that much about the revenue that’s coming in, which is a teeny-tiny drop in the bucket compared to what the city budget is.”
Wu motioned to table the resolution until further study, but was not joined by any other member of the Council. The Council passed the resolution 4-1, with Wu the only dissenting vote.
“I’m disappointed,” Alvarenga said after the vote. “There may not be any real health issues, but the public should know that everyone is safe. I’m not here to say that we’ll get cancer, but people think that. Teachers feel that there’s too much radiation, so we should do a better job of letting the public know that everything is safe.”
Several who testified thanked Wu for his efforts, despite the result vote.
“I’ll look for ways to address the issue if they arise,” Wu said. “It’s not signed yet.”