As church and AT&T officials met Tuesday night with the angry parents of preschool students, pressure mounted on Epworth United Methodist Church to reconsider its plan to place cell antennas in its steeple.
“The reality is that AT&T is not going to sue the church” if Epworth abandoned a lease it’s already signed with AT&T, audience member Will Shevlin told the gathering late in the meeting. Shevlin isn’t an Epworth parent but dropped in on the meeting as a nearby Candler Park resident.
The meeting in the church’s sanctuary started out badly: Many of the 30 or so Epworth Day School parents loudly objected to pastor Lisa Dempsey’s announcement that it would be limited to an hour, leaving little time for questions and answers.
That agenda quickly evaporated as parents repeatedly interrupted AT&T Senior Real Estate Manager David Walker with questions that turned toward the topics they wanted to discuss.
In his presentation, Walker did provide new information. He listed three area hospitals, three schools and one church that already have similar antenna arrays. The Georgia Tech campus has seven cell arrays, he said. Parents countered that none of those facilities are preschools.
Walker also noted that just one of two large towers visible from the church’s back door emits a 100,000-watt FM signal (compared to 270 watts planned for the Epworth facility). But parents, many of whom live near the church, countered that buying a home with existing towers in place is different from allowing a new and closer antenna array.
Parents pressed hardest to find out more about the steps necessary for putting up the tower.
One parent asked, “Is there any chance you would change your mind?”
“I can’t answer that question,” Walker answered.
Another asked, “What are the lease terms?”
“That information is proprietary between the company and the church,” Walker responded. “The church can share that with you.”
Parents were particularly irate that news of the antennas broke last week just as many of them were signing their children up to return to school next year. Although Epworth agreed last week to refund pre-enrollment fees to any parents who wished to pull their children out, many have complained that’s it difficult to find space in area preschools by March. They also professed their love for their children's school, which has 69 students, and their regret that they may end up leaving it.
When talk turned to whether the antennas would be operational during the 2014-15 school year, AT&T’s Bryan Curtis said the company might be able to schedule construction for the summer of 2015. That prompted an angry response from the Rev. Dempsey.
“That’s the first time I’ve heard that. The reality is that we don’t know a lot, and we’ve trusted,” she said, looking at Curtis. “We expect to hear accurate, clear, prompt information.”
Some aspects of the situation appear to be dynamic. For example, AT&T officials had previously committed to coming to an open, CPNO-led forum on the antennas; Tuesday night they’d only commit to a meeting with congregation members, which is church leaders may or may not open to the public.
In response to questions on why church leaders signed a lease with AT&T without consulting with the community, Epworth Lay Leader Grady Norman Greene told the group that they couldn’t turn the clock back on the way decisions were made earlier. Both he and Dempsey apologized for not communicating with the community earlier and more effectively.
Parents responded bitterly when Greene told them that now their best route would be to work through the city’s Special Administrative Zoning process, which gives little standing to cell facility opponents. “AT&T is now in control of the process,” he said.
But an opening for common ground seemed to appear when talk turned toward alternatives to the antenna project that might be considered by the financially struggling church. He revealed to the group afterward that revenues from the preschool are greater than the $30,000 that the church expects to get from have AT&T as its cell tenant (it's unclear whether net income from the school tops prospective income from the lease).
“There isn’t anything,” Greene said, “that’s not on the table.”