Senators hearing the concerns of West End residents challenging the construction of a cell tower in Estate Fortuna apologized Sunday for approving the lease for the tower’s site without having all the information and said the government, per their request, is now considering other locations.
The lease agreement between the government and Liberty Mobile for approximately 2,000 square feet of land made it out of the Finance Committee on June 22 and was sent to Rules and Judiciary for final approval. However, speaking during the weekend meeting of the West End Alliance – the citizen group for Bordeaux and Fortuna – Sens. Donna Frett-Gregory and Janelle Sarauw revealed some inconsistencies in the process before and after the bill hit the floor, including the apparent lack of a public hearing as required by law.
“What went wrong is that Planning and Natural Resources is mandated within 60 days to hold a public hearing … with residents living within 500 feet of the tower, and that was not done,” Sarauw said. “Being a lawmaker as well, it is okay for us to acknowledge that we went wrong, and we jumped when we thought that it was done, and we heard no objections.”
Meanwhile, the lease was not included on the Senate’s original agenda on the day that it was considered but rather added during the hearing, which had the Division of Personnel and Public Works on the floor for budget testimony. Frett-Gregory explained to residents Sunday that as Senate President, she is the automatic sponsor of bills sent down from Government House, and without knowing that the lease was on the docket, had believed it to be held in committee since she wasn’t in attendance to speak to it.
“When I found out from my staff that the bill had been approved, I immediately wrote to the Rules Committee chair to remove it from the agenda and wrote a letter to the governor returning the lease because of all the complaints we had heard,” Frett-Gregory said.
A release from Government House last week confirmed commitment to looking at other sites, and while the lease now seems to be a moot point, Liberty officials also shared when contacted by the Source Sunday that whatever alternate is selected, the final location will still be somewhere in Bordeax/Fortuna. The structure – which Liberty said will instead be a monopole as opposed to a full-fledged tower – is part of a national FirstNet System that is meant to enhance communications between and to first responders across the country.
According to Liberty, the initial agreement between FirstNet and the government was brokered with AT&T as the carrier and transferred to Liberty after the company’s sale. Fortuna was identified by FirstNet as a dead zone, and because of that, will remain a monopole site.
That was not explained Sunday as no one from the central government was in attendance despite West End Alliance President Sheri Meyers explaining the relevant agencies had been invited. Still, many at the meeting questioned the impact the new structure will have on the overall health of the area, with one Bluewater Crest resident sharing that nine people within his neighborhood, among the 24 houses there, have cancer. With the number of cases in the West growing, many also advocated for the government to conduct a cancer study to see if there is any correlation to radiation being emitted from the current monopole in the area.
The particular parcel included in the lease has also been slated for the construction of a community multi-purpose center, though it is unclear, residents said, where that stands since ownership of the land has not yet been turned over by the V.I. Housing Finance Authority.