RIPON, Calif. — A public comment session at San Joaquin County board meeting was dominated by hundreds of parents, calling for a stop to plans that would place a cellphone tower near a school.
About 200 public comments were lodged with the county Board of Supervisors on April 20, many from parents and community members in Ripon. Each one echoed a similar message, specifically that they did not want a cell tower anywhere near Colony Oak Elementary School.
“We are going to fight this to the end, and our hope is that we stop this before it goes in,” said Kellie Prime, mother of a sixth-grade student at Colony Oak Elementary School.
The project itself is a 124-foot-high cell tower at 22640 S. Murphy Road in Ripon. The tower is outside the city limits and about 1/5 of a mile, or roughly 300 yards, from Colony Oak. The applicant is New Cingular Wireless, AT&T.
It’s not the first time that a cell tower caused a stir in the small city of Ripon. In 2019, a two-year battle involving the parents, the school district, and Sprint came to a close. Community members successfully fought for the removal of a cell tower at Weston Elementary School after a cluster of cancer cases and illnesses came about. The City of Ripon denied the claims back in 2019.
Prime, also the mother of a cancer survivor who had attended Weston, said her son was among the first impacted and believes that the cell tower might have been partially to blame. If she has her way, history won't repeat itself at Colony Oak.
“This is like living the nightmare over again, only this time we have the opportunity to stop it before our children are exposed to something that could potentially make them sick,” Prime said.
While organizations like the American Cancer Society (ACS) say it’s understandable that people are concerned about health effects from cell towers, their website says that there’s no strong evidence that exposure to RF waves from cell towers causes "noticeable health effects."
"At this time, there isn't a lot of evidence to support this idea. Still, more research is needed to be sure," the website says.
Prime has heard the argument from others but says she’d like to see studies and data specific to children. She said the ACS saying that there are still studies to be done is enough for a parent to not want their children exposed to something potentially harmful, especially given the events at Weston Elementary.
“There’s enough studies out there that we can show along with actual facts of what our children have been through to know that there’s just not enough evidence out there for us," Prime said. "And, there’s no parent that I know of that would be OK taking that risk knowing what we know here in town.”
Vanessa Dominguez, a parent of two children at Colony Oak, is in the same camp.
“There’s been no actual studies and we’re just not willing to gamble with our children’s lives,” Dominguez said.
That’s why when community members like Prime and Dominguez heard about the new cell tower project just weeks ago, they sprang into action. A Facebook group for parents of Colony Oak students grew to over 200 and parents also participating in a letter campaign that reached the county Board of Supervisors on April 20 with about 200 public comments.
Even the Ripon Unified School District took a stance on the cell tower, opposing the location and suggesting the tower would be better located far away from schools.
“Many letters have been sent from the school community, staff, and families to the San Joaquin County Planning Department also opposing the cell tower,” Dr. Ziggy Robeson, superintendent, told ABC10 in an emailed statement. “We have concerns that a cell tower will be an ongoing topic that will undoubtedly distract us from our mission of providing a safe, positive and stimulating environment for our students to learn.
After an effort to inundate leaders with the write-in campaign, the county also took notice.
“We are in the analysis phase of the cell tower as it is being reviewed against local ordinances and state and federal statutes,” said Jolena Voorhis, spokesperson for San Joaquin County. “We do not have a recommendation at this time on the application. Due to the outreach and concerns we have received from the community, the Site Approval Application has been forwarded to the planning commission.”
In a statement to ABC10, AT&T said the cell tower is part of an effort to provide better service and coverage to customers.
“When selecting a new cell site, we work with local elected officials and residents to find the location that balances the needs of our business with the concerns of the community,” a spokesperson for AT&T told ABC10. “This is an ongoing project and this site will provide the best coverage for San Joaquin County.”
The planning commission meeting on the matter will be held at a later date.
Dominguez and Prime are hoping to steer the project far away from the school before the tower goes into the ground on Murphy Road. That’s why they and many other parents are raising their voices on the project now.
“I think we jumped on it because we knew how serious and hard of a fight it was to get the Weston one down. It took years, so we were just thinking it’s easier to stop it in its tracks before the plan goes any further than try to get it taken down later,” Dominguez said.