Electro-magnet school

Parents at Audubon Park Elementary School thought the deal sounded too good to be true.

AT&T Wireless was willing to pay a premium to attach an antenna to a light pole at one of the school's baseball fields. The telecommunications company would lease the space for $15,000 a year -- a lot of money for a school that struggled to earn $5,000 at a recent PTA candy sale.

After AT&T made a presentation to school officials, nearly everyone was eager to back the deal. Among those in favor: the school district, Audubon Park's principal, the school's advisory committee and the North Orlando Kiwanis Little League, whose teams play on the field.

"They blew over us with information in a nice, professional manner that made people think that nothing was wrong," says Mary Brandehoff, a North Orlando Kiwanis member.

Then details began to emerge. Jennifer Marvel, a neighbor who lives close to the Corrine Drive and Flower Street school, read the plans AT&T submitted to the city's planning department.

What Marvel found was a cell-phone version of the old bait-and-switch tactic. "They were trying to portray it as just this little light pole with an extension on top. That's it. Free money," Marvel says. But the plans AT&T submitted included an 80-foot "monopole" that had a six-foot base. The pole would hold the ball-field lights 60 feet from the ground. Twenty feet higher, on top of the pole, AT&T would place a two-foot antenna array.

On the ground, next to a batting cage in an area behind the left-field fence, AT&T proposed to build a 322-square-foot building to house its generator.

Marvel and a group of neighbors are worried that the pole and eqiupment building looks too industrial and will drive away buyers from houses in Audubon Park. "It's aesthetically displeasing," says Irby Pugh, an attorney for the Aubudon Park residents. "It is not something the neighborhood should tolerate." Many of the people who first supported the monopole switched sides and now oppose it. Several hundred neighbors signed a petition against the antenna, and many gave money for a legal defense.

Neighbors argued against the antenna at a Municipal Planning Board meeting April 18. But the board voted unanimously in favor of AT&T. The board did, however, require AT&T to decrease the size of the pole's base, from six feet to 42 inches.

Unsatisfied with the board's decision, Audubon Park residents hired Pugh to represent them for an upcoming arbitration hearing. AT&T, meanwhile, says it has tabled the Aubudon Park site for six months while it looks at other options. But neighbors aren't buying the delay. They think it's a ruse to get the neighbors to let down their guard.

They are convinced that AT&T is determined to put an antenna in Aubudon Park.

The company lost a court battle in 1996 with Orange County's planning department to conceal an antenna inside a 135-foot steeple at the Corrine Baptist Church, a height that exceeded county restrictions. To ensure the company wouldn't lose another site, neighbors say, AT&T's Palm Beach office donated $500 to the campaign of Commissioner Bill Bagley. If this was the company's strategy, however, it backfired in March. Bagley lost to Patty Sheehan in a runoff election. AT&T did not contribute to her campaign.

AT&T spokeswoman Lisa Burby says she was unaware that the company had contributed to Bagley's campaign. Or what neighbors were implying by pointing out the contribution.

Bagley defends the contribution by saying many Audubon Park residents contributed $500 to his campaign. Regardless, he says his door was open to anyone wishing to speak with him.

But to many neighbors, the contribution meant that AT&T was trying to buy influence, and that Bagley's vote was already sold.

"I voted for Bill," says Brandehoff, the Kiwanis member. "Now I'm kind of sorry I did."

Then there's the health issue. Pugh has asked neighbors to downplay their concerns about the amount of radiation the antenna will produce. But for some, radiation is the key reason they oppose the pole. During an anti-antenna protest at the school May 17, some of them held up signs saying, "Say no to radiation."

"We're not supposed to bring it up," says Michele Burdette, a member of the Audubon Park PTA who opposes the antenna (though the PTA takes no official position). "But how could you ignore that?"

The FCC recommends that people maintain at least a 10-meter distance from a live cell-phone antennae. But the telecommunications industry points out that at an 80-foot distance, the amount of radiation that hits a person is no different than if he were standing in front of a microwave oven. Even so, many people question the industry's truthfulness.

"I would say we need what you call longitudinal studies," says Ted Kreines, a former city planner who now helps governments design master plans for cell-phone poles and towers. He is currently working with Alachua County to write a master plan for cell towers there. "These towers haven't been around for a long time. We don't know what the effects are, day after day, over a 10-year period. We have short-term studies, which have mixed conclusions. But there is no consensus."

Kreines says many governments and cell-tower contractors have been irresponsible -- with governments failing to account for the number of antennas in their borders and contractors installing antennas without bothering to obtain permits. Or they leave them in places, with no visible radiation warnings, where people are bound to come into contact with them, such as on the rooftops of downtown office buildings.

"It's almost a cowboy atmosphere where anything goes," he says.

Meantime, Audubon Park neighbors feel as if their blue-collar homes are being singled out at the expense of Winter Park's tony neighborhoods and more restrictive zoning laws.

"Part of AT&T's strategy is to go into moderate-income places where we don't have the firepower to fight this for any length of time," Burdette says.

Says Marvel: "At each stage it becomes more difficult and more expensive to fight."

She says that if the antenna goes up, she'll remove her son Gareth from Audubon Park next year.

Doesn't she consider that a drastic move?

"No," she responds. "I think there's some principle at stake here. They're trying to cram this thing in there, and they're not listening to the neighborhood."

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