Group of concerned Hempfield residents sues school district over cell towers

A “no trespassing” sign on the Rohrerstown cell tower construction site displays warnings for potential radiofrequency radiation. 

A yearlong battle over cellphone towers on school district property in East Hempfield Township has been revitalized thanks to a lawsuit filed against Hempfield School District.

Hempfield Citizens for Safe Schools Inc., an 85-member nonprofit founded after the Hempfield school board voted in January to give Verizon final approval to build its tower behind an elementary school, is suing the school district over leasing land “for a private party’s benefit.”

The complaint, filed on May 7 by attorneys Aaron Marines and Brandon Harter of Russell, Krafft & Gruber LLP, alleges the school district is violating Pennsylvania’s Donated or Dedicated Property Act, which restricts the conversion of public land to private use.

Therefore, the complaint states, the group requests that the district relocate its existing cell tower currently behind Landisville Elementary School on Mumma Drive and halt construction on the recently approved tower behind Rohrerstown Elementary School on Noll Drive.

Doing so, Carley Smith, one of the founding members of Hempfield Citizens for Safe Schools, said in an email, would provide students and staff “a safe and healthy educational experience for years to come.”

Years in the making

Smith was one of the many East Hempfield Township residents who adamantly opposed the board’s January decision to allow Verizon to apply for the necessary township permits and move forward with construction.

The board, however, had already approved a lease agreement with Verizon on May 12, 2015, after discussing the matter for months during school board meetings.

“As has been shared many times in public meetings, we have a lease agreement with Verizon, approved in 2015, for construction of a cell tower at the Rohrerstown site,” said district spokeswoman Shannon Zimmerman. “Construction was scheduled by Verizon and began within the last week. Verizon wanted to impact year-end school processes and activities to the minimum possible extent.”

Zimmerman, along with the district’s legal team — Andrew Bonekemper and Mark Fitzgerald of Fox Rothschild LLP — said they wouldn’t comment any further as it’s in active litigation.

Responding to the complaint on June 4, the school district brought up six objections and requested the group’s complaint be dismissed due to a lack of evidence and context, as well as it’s failure to include Verizon, “a necessary party,” in the lawsuit.

‘You have been put on notice’

Verizon is paying the district $48,000 each year to rent its two cell tower sites, plus costs for radiofrequency testing, according to the lease agreements.

Radiofrequency radiation and its potential health effects, as well as the consumption of green space, have been the opposing group’s main concerns. They are raising money through a GoFundMe page to help with legal costs.

They have sent nearly a dozen letters from health and safety professionals to school board members, one of which was from Ellen Marks, director of the California Brain Tumor Association.

Her letter included a story of a California school board member who expressed regret over his decision to renew a cell tower contract after discovering a few of the children had cancer.

“You have been put on notice,” the letter states, “and when (not if) children become ill you may be held personably liable. … I beg of you to reconsider and do whatever you can to not have this cell tower erected on school grounds.”

Background: Hempfield cell tower coverage

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