Montgomery superintendent denies application for Sligo Middle School cell tower
Decision based on community opposition, school official says
Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast has denied a petition by T-Mobile to install a 130-foot cell phone tower on the site of Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring.
The tower has been the center of neighborhood debate for several months. Weast's decision was based on opposition to the tower by Sligo Principal Richard Rhodes, the school's PTSA and the community, according to James Song, the director of facilities for the school system.
"It was solely based on community input," he said, noting Weast made the decision several weeks ago.
The 130-foot cell tower was proposed for a 30-feet-by-80-feet space behind the tennis courts at Sligo Middle School, according to T-Mobile's application to the county. The tower would help provide in-building coverage to residential neighborhoods surrounding routes 193 and 97 to reduce the number of dropped calls, the document says.
The proposal for the tower went in front of a Montgomery County hearing examiner in February. The hearing examiner determines whether companies like T-Mobile should get the special exception in zoning necessary to use school space for a commercial purpose. T-Mobile has said it would pay roughly $12,000 a year for the tower's lease, though the lease is not yet official. That amount would be divided between the school system, Sligo's cluster and Sligo Middle School.
The hearing examiner's decision was delayed until Thursday because of a motion to dismiss T-Mobile's petition by Janis Sartucci, a member of the Parents Coalition of Montgomery County and a homeowner in the neighborhood. Song said he sent a letter to the hearing examiner Tuesday morning alerting her of Weast's denial.
Sartucci and other residents living near Sligo sent dozens of letters to the hearing examiner in opposition to the tower. Some questioned the legality of the application and the approval process.
Among the concerns were whether the superintendent had the authority to enter a lease with land owned by the Board of Education.
"The huge issue here is that the Board of Education is the property owner, and the property owner has to make the decision for what can be built," Sartucci said Tuesday. "But the Board of Education has never voted on one of these [cell tower] petitions. What they're doing is hiding behind staff and letting staff make the decisions in a behind-closed-doors process. That means we can never hold our elected officials accountable for their decisions."
Song said the Board of Education delegated the authority to approve cell towers on school land to Weast, who then delegated the authority to Song himself.
Opponents also took issue with the fact that the initial application was signed by an MCPS employee who no longer worked with the school system at the time the petition was filed. MCPS updated the petition with Song's signature. Further, opponents said T-Mobile signed the petition next to a box marked "lessee" even though no lease was executed.
T-Mobile's lawyer could not be reached for comment after several phone calls on Friday and Tuesday.
Song said Weast's decision had nothing to do with the motion to dismiss the petition. There was no legal issue with how the school system handled the application, he said. Weast's decision was a result of newly raised opposition by the principal, PTSA and community members, he said.
But Sartucci said the denial of T-Mobile's application could be a game-changer in how the school system handles cell tower applications for school sites. She hopes the hearing examiner will remember this case when considering future proposals for cell towers on school properties, she said.
"Kudos to this Silver Spring neighborhood that has successfully challenged MCPS putting a cell tower on their site," she said. "... This community got on to the issue quickly, they had a voice and they were heard."