A jubilant group of south Berkeley residents left the Zoning Adjustments Board meeting at midnight on Thursday after the board voted 6-3 to deny the request of Verizon Wireless and Nextel Communications for a use permit to construct a new wireless telecommunications facility to host eighteen cell phone antennas and related equipment atop the UC Storage building at 2721 Shattuck Ave.
A remand from the Berkeley City Council, the proposed project had been vociferously protested by some area residents because of parking, loading and health concerns. Neighbors fear that the radio frequency (RF) produced by telecom antennas could cause cancer and interfere with medical devices.
The six ZAB members who voted against the permit cited insufficient third party engineering review as grounds for denial.
The City Council had asked the ZAB to look primarily at the third party engineering review, parking concerns and whether any illegal construction was taking place at the site, and asked ZAB to not to reject the cell phone antennas on grounds of health concerns.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits local governments from rejecting wireless facilities based on health concerns as long as the stations conform to Federal Communication standards.
“This is a major breakthrough in terms of communities being able to say how their urban environment is planned and engineered by themselves,” said Michael Barglow, a member of the Berkeley Neighborhood Antenna Free Union (BNAFU), an organization that was started last November to protest against the cell phone towers.
“Corporations have a major role in how these decisions are made. Cell phone pathways are like freeways. They need more lanes of traffic since so many people are using them. But just like the freeways, they contribute to pollution. The bottom line is that health and safety cannot be compromised in any way,” said Barglow.
Applicants Verizon Wireless and Nextel Communications argued at the meeting that the need for the cell phone towers had stemmed from complaints of South Berkeley residents about dropped calls and poor reception.
Several Verizon Wireless employees as well as customers testified about poor cell phone service in the area and urged the board to approve the Use Permit.
Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy -- who owns the property, located at 2721 Shattuck Av. -- spoke in favor of the project at the meeting.
“I find it ironic to be here in the midst of this controversy,” Kennedy said.
“We have addressed a lot of the concerns with respect to loading on Ward Street. I did have some concerns about the safety issues but an Internet check on health risks from antennas and cell phone towers took that away.”
Board member Bob Allen, who voted in favor of the cell phone towers, said that he was not convinced that the cell phone antennas were a threat to the community.
“There is not enough proof about negative effects,” Allen said, adding that he did not see any evidence of illegal work on the project’s premises and was convinced by the third party engineering review.
ZAB member Jesse Arreguin called the third party engineering review insufficient.
“The City Council remanded this issue to us and one of the criteria they wanted us to base our decision on was a third party engineering review,” Arreguin said. “A third party review is something we need to take account of. The review is insufficient, as the information in the review is being given by the applicants themselves. Therefore I don’t believe I have the necessary information to make this decision on whether these cell phone towers are necessary for people in Berkeley.”
The board continued the hearing for the request of a use permit for the conversion of Wright’s Garage at 2629-2635 Ashby Av. into a multi-tenant commercial building until February 8.
Applicant John Gordon told ZAB members that he had met with neighborhood groups to address concerns about parking.
“The area is densely populated. I can mitigate the impact of cars in the area but can’t solve the problem,” Gordon said.
The size of the proposed restaurant had been widely discussed by neighbors in past meetings. They fear that a large-scale establishment with an area of 5000 sq. ft. would increase traffic in the neighborhood.
Board member Terry Doran said that he welcomed creative suggestions about how to handle parking in the area.
‘It’s not a closed issue,” Doran said. “I would like to hear about possible solutions for not just your issue but also the whole neighborhood,” he said, addressing Gordon, who lives in the Elmwood district himself.
A few board members suggested valet parking to solve the parking problem.
“Something needs to be done about that space or it’s just going to go to the rats,” said board member Jesse Anthony.