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Binding contract means cell towers will stay

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Some of the cell towers on the roof of Aish HaTorah [Shefa Shefa photo]

Rogers insists radiation levels are safe

 

TORONTO — Despite a backlash from local Jewish residents, Aish HaTorah Toronto says that a binding contract it signed allowing Rogers Communications to install cellphone towers atop Aish’s Thornhill community centre means the structures are here to stay.

Aish Toronto agreed to let Rogers erect nine towers on the roof of its Clark Avenue low-rise building – which is home to a synagogue and Gan Nitzanim, a nursery school – in exchange for a monthly payment of $1,500.

But some Jewish community members have demanded that Aish walk away from the deal, citing potential health risks from radiation emitted by the towers, as well as a possible decline in property values of homes in the area.

Local residents expressed their anger at a public meeting in late March, and Gan parents had their own meeting with Aish officials around the same time.

In response to pressure to cancel the deal, Aish Toronto spokesperson Caroline Spivak said Aish leaders consulted lawyers about their options.

“We committed to the community to try to delay the testing and operation of the towers, but Rogers flat out said no,” Spivak said.

“We engaged legal council to help us understand if there was an opportunity to challenge the contract. There is not,” she said. “Rogers is not in breach of their contractual obligation, and as a result, Aish is expected to uphold and maintain its own contractual obligations. As far as Rogers is concerned, they’re not coming down.”

Spivak said that if Aish tried to back out of the contract, “it would ruin Aish Toronto. You have to appreciate a big, global company like that can out-resource a community centre… Are they going to feel sorry for us because our community isn’t happy? No. They’re in the business of making money.”

Although the contract was signed in June 2011, it wasn’t until construction began this past January that people learned about the decision.

Thornhill resident and Gan Nitzanim parent Aaron Posner said no one at Aish informed the community or the building’s tenants about the deal.

“No one knew what was going on until [the towers] were up. We came in one morning and there they were,” Posner said.

Posner said as soon as he learned about the towers, he began to do some research on the Internet about the effects their electromagnetic waves can have on a person’s health.

“There were a billion articles – half saying it’s fine, half saying it’s not fine. And that’s just not good enough,” he said.

“Countries develop their policies on cellphone towers and the health risks associated with them based on a World Health Organization report written in 2006… That report was updated in 2009… That is so long ago when it comes to technology that it’s almost not worthwhile talking about.”

He said the WHO now plans to revisit the issue with a new report this year.

“Until you do a 20-year study and have children under the age of four exposed to it eight hours a day, five days a week, then you’ll have a study,” he said.

Rogers spokesperson Leigh-Ann Popek insisted that the towers’ radiation emission levels are well below government health limits. “When building or upgrading infrastructure, we are always in compliance with Health Canada standards, Industry Canada regulations, and the processes and regulations of the local municipality,” she said.

Popek said the towers are in the final phases of construction. They need to be tested and are expected to be activated by the end of the year.

Spivak admitted that it was wrong of Aish leaders not to consult the community before the contract was signed. 

“That is something that Aish Toronto recognizes – that while it wasn’t a legal or procedural requirement, it would have been a good neighbourly [action],” Spivak said.

“It was an honest oversight. Certainly, there was no anticipation of the intense backlash that has been received. [Aish leaders] thought they were doing a good thing for the community in order to use the funds to support ongoing programming, but they didn’t consult, and that has been fully acknowledged by Aish.

“Unfortunately, many in the community are not willing to accept that it was an honest-to-goodness mistake. There was no deliberate deceit here on the part of anyone.”

Spivak added that cell towers are more prevalent in our communities than most people realize and emit less radiation than personal mobile devices.

“Whether we see them or not, they’re everywhere in our community. There’s more radiation coming out of a cellphone that a parent is talking on while driving their child to a daycare than there is from the proximity to the cellphone towers.”

But assurances from Aish and Rogers haven’t been enough to appease a concerned community.

Gan Nitzanim director Naomi Zipori said she’s currently looking for a new location for her school, which serves more than 90 children between the ages of two and five.

Zipori said she’s in a bidding war for an undisclosed location, but likely won’t know whether she’s won the bid until the end of this month.

“Now the parents are very scared about what’s going on next year,” she said. “They want to stay, but still they’re worried about the space.”

But Zipori said that if she loses the bid for a new location, she’ll stay at Aish.

“I don’t think it’s such a big deal, because the towers are all over Toronto. All over. I checked. It’s terrible. If not here, then somewhere else,” she said.

Posner, who has one child currently attending the nursery and plans to send his twins there next year, said if the school doesn’t move to another location, he doesn’t know what he’ll do.

“I have no plan B,” he said.

Posner agreed that legally, Rogers isn’t doing anything wrong, but he cited Industry Canada guidelines that state companies should consider “local circumstances” when choosing a site.

“We value community feedback and we consider the needs of local residents when constructing the infrastructure that provides wireless service to customers and communities throughout the country,” Popek said.

“We work hard to find a suitable location and design while still meeting the technical requirements of the network.”

But Posner said Rogers is just paying lip service to community concerns.

“How can you say you considered this when you put it on top of a school, on a shul, and worse, next door to the Reena centre?” he said, referring to Reena’s Toby and Henry Battle Developmental Centre for adults with developmental disabilities.

“We can’t sue Rogers… but I think they’re wrong, and I think the reason they’ll never back down is because it’ll set a precedent if they back down,” he added.

When asked what actions Rogers would take if Aish decided to walk away from the contract, Popek wouldn’t comment, saying that the agreement between Rogers and Aish “is privileged information.”

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