Public Comment

South Berkeley Cell Antenna Dispute: Maio Recuses Herself, Telecoms Threaten Legal Action

By Michael Barglow
Thursday May 29, 2008 - 10:09:00 AM

At the end of the May 20 Council meeting, Linda Maio recused herself on a Max Anderson motion which calls for a moratorium on cell antenna applications in the city. Maio did not explain her action. However, her husband has for many years been a tenant of developer Patrick Kennedy. Kennedy owns UC Storage. And UC Storage is the site where Kennedy would like to rent cell phone antenna space to the telecommunications industry for over $200,000 a year.  

Before any discussion, let alone vote, could take place on the Anderson motion, the City Council took a 10-minute break, during which acting City Attorney Zack Cowan informed the council that a unanimous vote would be required to institute a moratorium. As of this writing, we do not know what city law requires a unanimous vote on moratoriums. 

After the break, at about 10:30 p.m., Le Conte Neighborhood residents lined up to support the moratorium. One by one, they told the council that a moratorium was imperative.  

For over three years, the Le Conte Neighborhood Association and Berkeley Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union (BNAFU) have opposed a Verizon antenna application to place 18, now reduced to 11, antennas, on South Shattuck’s UC Storage. From the eastern wall of this building, alone, two very powerful cell antennas, will emit a total of 2,600 watts of radio frequency (RF) radiation. Twelve hundred watts of this total are for data transmission, and have nothing to do with cell phone conversations. In addition there are two 200-watt antennas also emitting RF radiation facing directly into neighborhood homes. Typically, antennas placed at the height of UC Storage only emit 200 watts of RF radiation each.  

Until this last month, after the city had hired an independent radiation measurement specialist, no one on the council, nor any other citizens, had been informed of the extraordinarily high wattage of two of these antennas. True, the antennas would still be legal under the Federal Telecommunications Act (FTA) of 1996. That act was crafted by the telecommunications industry and forbids any consideration of health concerns in city government deliberations. The telecommunications industry lobbied heavily in favor of the 1996 FTA, while European countries like Switzerland have RF radiation standards 100 times stricter than those of the FTA.  

In many cities, high wattage antennas which face directly into lower income neighborhoods often serve high income neighborhoods much further away. In Berkeley, for example, although the flatlands already receive excellent cell phone service, the Berkeley Hills have experienced mediocre cell antenna reception. Thus, Hills cell phone users would appear to benefit from more powerful antennas on UC Storage. However, unfortunately for Hills residents, they have received, and will continue to receive increased RF radiation, since the greater distance cell phone users are from antennas, the more radio frequency radiation these users receive from their cell phones. Cell phones are made to amp up their power and RF radiation in order to reach more distant antennas. 

The inequity of the present system of antenna distribution in Berkeley (14 locations in South Berkeley, two in North Berkeley, and none in the Berkeley Hills) means that our poorer neighborhoods are unfairly exposed to many more antennas than Berkeley’s wealthier neighborhoods. On the basis of aesthetic concerns alone, this imbalance is unjustified. Most of Berkeley’s antennas are quite visible. The unpleasant RF radiation burden of cell antennas should be shared more equally and wisely by all our citizens.  

Cell antennas can be much lower in wattage if they are dispersed evenly. A consensus has grown among independent RF engineers that low wattage cell antennas spread evenly throughout cities are wiser and more equitable than high wattage antennas concentrated in lower income areas. Hence the city of Irvine, for example, has already begun the process of re-drafting its own cell antenna ordinance. 

Low wattage antennas, mounted on city-owned poles, can also provide significant long-term revenue to cities rather than to big developers and landlords. Recall that Patrick Kennedy stands to earn about $200,000 a year for renting his four walls for antenna placement, and at no extra cost to himself. 

Berkeley needs time to assess this option—wider distribution of lower power antennas—and to examine how other cities are redrafting their ordinances along these lines. Initially, this option may cost the telecommunication companies more, but it will make the lives of Berkeley citizens safer.  

In the council meeting, following Linda Maio’s recusal, Zack Cowan’s comments to the council in private, and Le Conte Neighborhood support for a moratorium based on the above new information, three attorneys representing Verizon Wireless, Sprint/Nextel and T-Mobile, told the council that a moratorium would be illegal. Verizon has already threatened the city with a lawsuit if the city dares to delay Verizon cell antenna permits Verizon is relying on the old adage, “Who pays the piper, calls the tune.” Verizon is paying the pipers, and the pipers are its very expensive and numerous attorneys. 

BNAFU has a pending lawsuit against Verizon, Nextel, the City of Berkeley, and Patrick Kennedy. We demand that the city take concrete steps to address our legitimate concerns for equitable cell antenna distribution and safe cell phone coverage in Berkeley. The city should be protecting us by taking this case to court themselves, or at least paying the neighbors’ expenses for doing so. Unfortunately, we must depend entirely on individual contributions. To find out more and to help keep our legal fight alive, please call 526-5075, 849-4014, or e-mail 

Having appalled the Le Conte Neighborhood residents in attendance, the council meeting adjourned with no decision made. The Anderson moratorium motion was tabled until Tuesday, June 10. BNAFU is asking that the City Council prioritize our community’s need for equitable treatment and sound, thoughtful policy over quick and easy cell company profits.  

You can help our cause by attending the next City Council meeting, Tuesday, June 10, 7 p.m. at 2134 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. Check the Berkeley City Council website at: for the order of agenda items if you cannot make it at 7. 


Michael Barglow is a South Berkeley