Cell Phone Towers Rejected in Residential Area

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday June 02, 2006

About a dozen Berkeley residents filed into Council Chambers last Thursday to urge the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) to reject a proposal for new wireless facilities at a local Catholic church. The board took heed. 

Board members denied AT&T Wireless Services an application to erect three antennae and related equipment at St. Ambrose Parish, 1145 Gilman St. That same night, the board approved plans for more than a dozen cell phone antennae at a storage building on Shattuck Avenue. The difference?  

St. Ambrose is in the heart of a residential neighborhood; the storage business is not. City code stipulates that towers in residentially zoned districts must meet more stringent standards—providers must prove the location is necessary to improve their coverage, and interference with “neighborhood character” must be kept to a minimum. 

AT&T was unable to convince ZAB members it could meet those requirements. The board denied the proposal 7-2, with Robert Allen and Jesse Anthony voting against the rejection. 

But the real issue—the one that motivates residents to sit through lengthy civic meetings—is the very issue ZAB and all local governing bodies are forbidden from regulating: health and safety. 

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits local governments from rejecting wireless facilities on the basis of health concerns, so long as the stations conform to Federal Communications Commission standards. 

Some people fear that the radio frequency (RF) radiation telecom antennae produce can cause cancer, interfere with medical devices and otherwise affect personal health. 

Terry Dillon’s partner suffers from arrhythmia, and Dillon fears RF emissions could significantly upset her heart. The couple, who lives within 300 feet of St. Ambrose Parish, was prepared to move from their home of 20 years if the AT&T project won approval. 

“We were going to have to sell our house,” he said. “I didn’t want to move, but we would have had to because of the health concerns.” 

According to the World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society, existing research suggests that base stations are unlikely to produce or induce cancer. However, both organizations concede the research literature is incomplete. 

The United States is home to more than 200 million wireless subscribers, up from 24 million just over a decade ago. In 1994, there were fewer than 18,000 cell sites, which include antennae and other equipment. Today there are more than 180,000. 

Wireless providers select cell sites based on centrality of location and building height: churches, telephone poles and multistory businesses are desirable locations. Typically, providers offer a monthly fee in exchange for a lease on space to house their facilities.  

In the case of St. Ambrose, AT&T would have paid $1,500 to $1,700 a month to use the church’s steeple, basement and fence for equipment--money the parish needs to offset flagging membership, said pastor Father George Alengadan. 

“It’s a tough situation for us, because we need money to keep this place,” he said. 

As cell phone use grows ubiquitous and demand for more and better coverage rises, residents from across the country are voicing opposition to the construction of wireless facilities in their communities: “Zoners Nix Sprint Cell Phone Tower Application”; “City Council Notebook: Faulty Towers”; and “Santa Cruz Preschool Closes Citing Cell Tower Radiation” read recent headlines from papers in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Santa Cruz. 

In California, it could become a lot more difficult for local governments to regulate telecommunications facilities. SB 1627, the Permit Streamlining Act, introduced by Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) in February, would prohibit cities and counties from taking certain actions as a condition of permit approval for construction or reconstruction of a wireless station, including “that all facilities be limited to certain geographic areas or sites owned by particular parties within the jurisdiction of the city or county.” 

That means Berkeley would no longer have the authority reject cell sites because they are slated for development in residential neighborhoods. 

For resident Erika Lamm, who opposed the antennae proposal at St. Ambrose Parish, that could spell trouble. 

“If local control is taken away,” she said, “every church steeple will be prime location for a cell phone tower.”