Richmond Activists Fight Cell Phone Antenna Installation

By Will Allen
Friday August 17, 2007

A fight between community activists and real estate developers partnered with a cellular phone carrier is shaping up in Point Richmond. The point of contention is a recently installed high-power cellular phone antenna array on an apartment complex on a hilltop at 260 Water Street in Point Richmond, disguised by an orange-painted flat case which is visible from far away.  

A group calling themselves RAP4 Richmond (Responsible Antenna Placement and Planning for Richmond), led by locals Andy Olmstead and Robin Carpenter, contends that the antenna installation is ugly and bad for the neighborhood. 

The property owners, Richmond real estate developers Jerry and Jan Feagley (represented by their lawyer, Kathleen McKinley) and their business partner in this venture, the T-Mobile Corporation, defend the antenna placement as unobjectionable, legally and ethically. 

Residents worry that having high-powered radio equipment nearby will be harmful and make their property less valuable. 

The 1996 Telecommunications Act blocks any legal challenges to cellular phone installations on the basis of health objections. Neighboring property owners claim that some tenants have already moved out because of the antennas, and say that the installation is a commercial use in a residential zone.  

RAP4 Richmond is trying to use the controversy over the antenna installation as a launching point for advocating bigger policy changes regarding cell-phone antenna placement in Richmond and throughout California.  

McKinley contended that although the Feagleys and T-Mobile obtained their permit for the antennas “over-the-counter” with limited public notice, the Feagleys have broken no Richmond City planning ordinances. The city’s planning department decided that the Feagleys’ permit application met the requirements for an over-the-counter permit under Richmond law and granted the permit without a public hearing. 

In response, RAP has gathered roughly one hundred signatures from people in the community on a petition. The group used the petition on July 31 at a Richmond City Council meeting to persuade the City to stop issuing any more over-the-counter permits for antennas for six months—essentially a moratorium on further new cell-phone antenna placements in Richmond. According to McKinley, “the Feagleys don’t have any problems with someone trying to change the way antenna installations are approved.” 

RAP’s petition demands that T-Mobile and the Feagleys either apply for a conditional use permit or remove the antennas. Conditional use permits allow for some flexibility within zoning laws following a public hearing. Prior to the public hearing, T-Mobile and the Feagleys would have to have an environmental study of their installation done to ensure that they are not violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). A proven violation of CEQA in this case could be used to block further residential antenna installations around the state. 

One factor that affected the City’s decision to grant the permit was the covering the Feagleys had built around the installation so that the antennas themselves were out of sight. For example, Pat Crowther, an elderly local resident who lives within view of the covered antennas, said that she was not aware for a long time after the installation that there was anything unusual about 260 Water Street: “They put [the covering] up a while ago, but I had no idea what it was.”  

RAP claimed that the Feagleys disguised the antennas as a solar panel covering in order to circumvent City ordinances. McKinley insisted that this is fully within the law: “The City of Richmond does not prohibit residential antennae ... they’re allowed if the antennae are enclosed.” 

Carpenter said she feels that the Feag-leys “use this loophole to get around any problems with safety ... if they camouflage it, they can do whatever they want there.” McKinley, on the other hand, asserted that “the RAP4 Richmond group misunderstands City ordinances.” She says that “regardless that the individuals spearheading this campaign don’t like [the installation], [the Feagleys] complied with the City’s guidelines.” 

Further complicating the situation are a number of personal attacks RAP4 Richmond has leveled at the Feagleys. For example, on the RAP4 Richmond website www.rap4richmond.org, the group asserted that the Feagleys “are blinded by greed and love money more than their fellow human beings.” McKinley was quick to respond that while “it’s OK to raise an issue about cell-phone tower installations, it’s not appropriate to attack fellow citizens.” On the other hand, in a letter to the City of Richmond, McKinley described the way RAP represented their health objections as “Frank-Capra-esque appeals for truth-telling and loving your neighbor” and “shamelessly maudlin and sentimental appeals to babies and the elderly.” Moreover, she said, “T-Mobile approach-ed the Feagleys.” 

The combative RAP4 Richmond also claimed that the Richmond planning department is, essentially, bad at its job. Said Carpenter, “I keep praying [the department is] corrupt, because it’s a shame if it’s just incompetence.” A recent internal audit of the department, called the Zucker report, has spotlighted several problems with the department. Carpenter claims that “the planning department constantly breaks its own ordinances.” McKinley said that the city planning department alone made the decision to allow the installation after the department determined that it met the requirements for an over-the-counter permit. 

A representative of the office of the mayor of Richmond, Gayle McLaughlin, said the mayor supports RAP 4 Richmond in their quest for a moratorium on further residential antenna placements, particularly if the community wishes for such a moratorium. 

Although scientists are still researching the health effects of such installations, Richmond is not the first town where residents have feared that cell-phone antenna installations are dangerous. In a similar case last year, residents of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, successfully blocked Verizon from building a cell-phone tower near a school.