Westmont Hilltop High School exterior

An exterior shot of Westmont Hilltop Junior-Senior High School in Upper Yoder Township on Thursday, March 17, 2022.

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – The Westmont Hilltop School District board hired an attorney Thursday night to sue the members of the Upper Woodmont Group for blocking a proposed cellphone tower on the grounds of Westmont Hilltop High School.

“We have felt that enough is enough,” board president Robert Gleason said afterward. “This is serious business.”

Manning J. O’Connor II, an attorney at Metz Lewis Brodman Must O’Keefe LLC, has been retained at a rate of $375 per hour to represent the district against the residents’ group in a separate civil suit from existing litigation. The board approved his hiring unanimously.

Gleason said the district is bringing the lawsuit because the board believes the residents’ lengthy legal battle to block the tower’s construction has compromised the safety of the high school’s students, staff and faculty.

“The time has come for action on this,” Gleason said.

This issue has gone back and forth for years, with the Upper Woodmont Group opposing the cell tower’s construction. The structure was to be installed on the hill behind the high school on Fair Oaks Drive in Upper Yoder Township to improve the bad cell service in the area, which first responders and school leaders have said is a safety concern.

Residents from that neighborhood voiced their concerns about the proposed tower site’s proximity to homes there and took the matter to Commonwealth Court to be decided.

The first court ruling was in favor of Vogue Towers, which was brought on to build the structure, but the Upper Woodmont Group appealed the opinion, and the case was sent back for another hearing before the Upper Yoder Township Zoning Hearing Board regarding a height variance for the tower.

That board again cast a favorable vote, and the school board approved an action to move the tower site to somewhere else on the high school grounds in August 2020, though no location was chosen.

Despite that, the residents appealed the decision a second time. The next hearing in that case is scheduled for Oct. 11.

Westmont Hilltop may seek damages in this separate case as well, Gleason said.

School director Joseph Nibert asked if there was a cap on the expenditure for O’Connor’s time and was told there wasn’t.

A representative of the Upper Woodmont Group could not be reached for comment on Thursday night.

District hires two more part-time school officers

Another safety matter dealt with by the school directors was the hire of two part-time substitute school police officers.

Dean West, a West Hills Regional Police detective sergeant, and Adam Waddell, a Stonycreek Township police officer, were approved to work for the district at a rate of $20 per hour.

Thomas Mitchell, superintendent, said he was excited about the candidates.

“We’ll be able to have in-house substitutes,” he said.

West and Waddell will be available in case the district’s newly hired full-time SPO, Jason Hunter, needs a vacation or sick day.

Hunter was hired at the August school board meeting and started work in the beginning of September. Mitchell said thus far he’s assimilated well and is building relationships with the students and members of the community.

Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5054. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.

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