About 1,300 signatures were submitted to the Bend City Council on Wednesday to protest a cell tower that is close to completion near Elk Meadow Elementary School.

The city approved a conditional use permit in September 2017 for Verizon to build the tower on an undeveloped 1.7-acre plot of land directly south of Elk Meadow. It is scheduled to be completed and operational this month.

But that fact did not stop dozens of parents of Elk Meadow students from presenting Verizon, as well as the City Council, with a petition with about 1,300 signatures opposing the placement of the tower. The petition asks Verizon to move the cell tower to a minimum distance of 1,300 feet from the school — a distance they claim is necessary to eliminate adverse health effects for children.

And now, they want the City Council to support them and ask Verizon to move it.

“We need you to pick up the phone, Mr. King, and call Verizon on our behalf,” said Elizabeth Szabo, a parent of an Elk Meadow student, referring to City Manager Eric King. “You have the muscle. You have the power.”

But Mayor Sally Russell said the city is limited in what it can do. Under federal law, no state or local government can prohibit the offering of wireless services where a carrier is licensed, she said.

“The city can’t prevent cell towers from locating near schools, or many other places,” Russell said.

But several parents pushed back, arguing there are things the city can do. Many who spoke Wednesday took issue with the lack of notice provided to parents and school faculty about the construction of the tower. A vast majority of Elk Meadow families live outside of the city’s 750-foot-wide notification area, Jeannelle Sylvester, a parent of an Elk Meadow student, said Wednesday. That means most parents and school faculty first learned about Verizon’s plans when construction began in July.

“Why aren’t we as parents given the same opportunity to appeal … as residents are?” Sylvester said. “Where is the gap here? The school board is saying it’s not their responsibility, and you’re saying that it’s not your responsibility.”

Parents are asking the city to change the code so everyone around and in a school must be notified of a cell tower, not just people within 750 feet of the school.

Jeannine Brew Braggs, a spokesperson for Verizon, said the company heard the concerns of the community. But Verizon is still moving forward with the construction of the tower, which will be ready to go on air before the end of the year, she said.

“We are open to hosting a town hall meeting and will arrange for an independent health expert to attend to address any concerns,” Braggs said in an email to The Bulletin.

Experts say there’s no evidence to suggest health impacts from the radio frequencies emitted. High levels of radio frequency waves can heat up body tissue, but the level of radio waves used by cellphones and towers is much lower, according to the American Cancer Society.

To evaluate health risk, petitioners are asking the city to create a task force, which would immediately act upon the reported findings of a study the Oregon Health Authority is doing regarding wireless technology in schools, which will be completed in 2021.

“We elected (the council) to represent our interests, and now we need them to act on our behalf, to pick up the phone and to work with Verizon to get the cell tower moved to a safe location,” said Paul Bacon, who represents the group of concerned parents, in a statement. “We want this done immediately, diligently and directly. That’s all we wanted in the first place.”

Several councilors mentioned they had brought up this issue with other representatives, including Oregon’s U.S. senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, to explore what changes can be made on a federal level. But for now, the city’s hands are tied, Russell said.

“I know you are all here because you want to create change,” Russell said to the parents. “The bottom line is … today our City Council is not in a place to create that kind of change.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, bvisser@bendbulletin.com

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