School Board rejects initial bid for cell tower at South Portland High School

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SOUTH PORTLAND — School Board members on Monday signaled they do not favor a proposal to build a cellular communications tower at South Portland High School.

No formal decision was made in the hour-long workshop discussion about installing a 95-foot tower at Martin Memorial Field for use by AT&T. A new site and more comprehensive data on tower emissions could be considered, but placing the tower behind the bleachers will not happen.

“I’m a hard sell,” Chairman Rick Carter said about the presentation by consultant Peter Cooke of Wellman Associates of Orange, Mass., to dismantle an existing light stanchion and replace it with a tower holding field lights, antennas and support equipment. The antennas and equipment would be connected to a 288-square-foot shelter with a generator for the tower. All would be constructed at company expense.

Cooke said the company would pay $1,800 per month for the first year of a five-year lease and increase the payments 3 percent annually. Lease terms included four options for additional five-year terms and do not have a opt-out clause for the School Department.

A second site across the football field is a possible alternative, and was preferred by School Board member James Gilboy, who expressed concern the rental income was not the best deal the School Department could get.

“I’m not going to give away our land for cheap money,” Gilboy said.

Board members Rick Matthews, Karen Callahan and Sara Goldberg pressed Cooke on details about the range and strength of radiation emitted from the tower, but were told it was no greater than exposure to a microwave oven.

Board member Mary House was not reassured.

“What bothers me is I don’t think you or anyone else could stand up say ‘I guarantee you 100 percent there are no health effects,’” she told Cooke.

Goldberg said better phone reception would benefit the school, especially in emergencies, but Carter remained unconvinced.

“I’m not sure the risk and reward at $20,000 per year is worth it,” he said.

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said she was approached about the proposal after preliminary discussions between Cooke, City Manager Jim Gailey and Finance Director Greg L’Heureux.

The project would not need City Council approval, but would require a Planning Board variance, Godin said.

Godin said revenue is a primary consideration in bringing the proposal to the board, because city councilors want to know how thoroughly the School Department looks for new funding sources.

Russ Brigham, who is the School Department director of buildings and grounds, high school Principal Ryan Caron, and Athletic Director Todd Livingston recommended the proposal, according to an Oct. 22 letter from Brigham to the board.

Cooke said the tower would be similar to one built at the city fire station off Western Avenue, where AT&T leases space for $2,400 a month. The difference in rent, he said, reflects that the city built the tower at the fire station.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.