T-Mobile Sues DeKalb Again Over Cell Towers on School Land

Company brings second action to realize lease deal with school district

, Daily Report


DeKalb is wrangling over cellphone towers similar to this one at Eastvalley Elementary School in Cobb County.
DeKalb is wrangling over cellphone towers similar to this one at Eastvalley Elementary School in Cobb County.

Wireless communications firm T-Mobile South has sued DeKalb County a second time in its continuing efforts to erect cellphone towers on public school properties.

T-Mobile says its leasing deal with the DeKalb County Board of Education to erect towers at nine of the county's public schools exempts it from local zoning laws the county is attempting to enforce. The company filed suit in U.S. District Court on Dec. 20, asking Judge Thomas Thrash Jr. to force the county to issue a land development permit so it can build a wireless tower at the Margaret Harris Comprehensive School in Atlanta.

The school, which teaches severely disabled children, is located near Virginia-Highland and Druid Hills in a neighborhood known as Briarcliff Heights.

The suit is the second T-Mobile has filed against the county over the cellphone towers. In October, T-Mobile sued to force the county to allow construction of a tower at Lakeside High School. That suit is also pending before Thrash.

At issue is a deal that T-Mobile cut with the DeKalb County School District in 2011 to lease space at nine public schools to erect cellphone towers as high as 150 feet. The leases have generated controversy, petitions and protests—largely over perceived health problems associated with electromagnetic waves generated by the towers—from parents whose children attend the public schools on which T-Mobile has proposed to erect the towers.

Neighbors living near the schools also have protested, fearing that towers looming over their communities would depreciate their residential property values. Neighbors have scoffed at assurances by T-Mobile that it would attempt to disguise the towers as pine trees.

After the school district's leases became public, the county's seven-member commission—including current interim CEO Lee May—sent a letter to then CEO Burrell Ellis asserting a commission policy to prohibit cellphone towers on single-family residential zoned properties.

In that letter, the commission claimed that the school district's decision to lease space for cell towers at public schools in residential neighborhoods "circumvents county zoning regulations" and had placed the county government "in an untenable position" by asking it to honor requests for building permits in violation of county zoning ordinances.

T-Mobile's two recent suits claim that by directing T-Mobile to comply with county zoning regulations before it can obtain a construction permit for the cellphone towers, the county is violating federal communications laws. The company contends that federal laws promoting the easy availability of communications services at reasonable rates mandate that it be allowed to construct cellphone towers wherever it deems necessary to provide adequate service to its customers, according to the complaint.

In the Dec. 20 suit, T-Mobile also said that the Margaret Harris school was selected as a desirable location "to fill a significant gap in reliable wireless coverage in the area surrounding the site."

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