Noe Valley Voice December-January 1997-98

Two Sides Are Talking in Cell Phone Antenna Flap

By Denise Minor

The debate raging in Noe Valley over cellular telephone antennas shifted down a gear last month when a professional mediator stepped in to try to cool things off.

The Noe Valley Ministry hired Erika Pardo of Just Resolutions to begin negotiations between the church and its neighbors who are opposed to the antennas that Pacific Bell Mobile Services and Cellular One plan to install in the church's steeple.

"We inadvertently opened a can of worms in this neighborhood, and we would like to see some kind of closure," said interim pastor Joan Huff. "Everyone wants the uproar to end."

Pardo mediated a Nov. 15 meeting between the congregation and the groups that rent space at the church at 1021 San-chez St., including the Noe Valley Nursery School and the Noe Valley Senior Center. Many members of those groups oppose the antennas for fear that their emissions could cause health problems.

"The purpose of the meeting was to focus on common ground and to reaffirm some sense of community," said Pardo. "I asked people to take a step back from their opinions about the antennas and brainstorm alternative ways to raise money."

Although it appeared for two months that the church elders would not back down from their agreement with the two corporations, after the meeting Huff said they might consider other fundraising options to make up the more than $2,000 they would have received monthly for allowing the antennas to be installed.

"Right now, we're looking at the most viable alternative, which was proposed by one of the neighbors, Peter Gabel," said Huff. "He will put together a proposal for the Ministry to receive nonprofit status as a community center. We would then be eligible to apply for a number of grants."

The church already has nonprofit status, she said, but churches are not eligible for many building improvement grants.

One of the reasons the Ministry wanted to rent out its steeple to Pac Bell and Cellular One was to raise funds for improvements such as shoring up the building's foundation for seismic safety, creating better disabled access, doing electrical rewiring, and soundproofing the music room to reduce the noise from concerts that has bothered neighbors for years.

Elizabeth Street resident Peter Gabel is president of New College, a small nonprofit college that owns five buildings in the Mission District and has considerable experience in this arena.

"I'm meeting next week with my staff at New College to go over the Ministry's financial status and to try to come up with a plan." said Gabel.

The Ministry is in a difficult situation, he said, in that it is a small Presbyterian church that also runs what is basically a community center out of its building.

"Some of us who strongly oppose the antennas would like to help support the community center at the Ministry. It's a valuable neighborhood resource," said Gabel. "We would like to form a board that would take over substantial financial and maintenance responsibility for the building. It would mean some type of joint governance with the Ministry of the community center."

Gabel wants to assure neighbors and congregants that he is not proposing turning the Ministry into a magnet for more cars and people.

"We all agree that we don't want to radically change the nature of the Ministry -- such as turning it into some sort of YMCA," he said. "We would only expand its use in ways that are complementary to the spiritual nature of the building."

But the Ministry's elders met in late November and are not yet ready to back away from their agreement with the two cell phone companies, said Huff. They strongly support, however, having Pardo organize a meeting with the neighbors such as the one she mediated with the building users.

Pardo said she was planning a mid-December meeting and hoped mediation would reduce tensions between the Ministry and some of its neighbors.

"There is a lot of lingering anger out here," said Elizabeth Street resident Chris Beaver. "It amazes me that an organization which is supposed to be spiritual in nature could treat its neighbors like this."

For the past two months, Beaver and about 50 other area residents have held protests every Sunday morning in front of the church. They also collected 850 signatures opposing installation of the antennas.

During November the Ministry and the protesters waged a battle of missives. They bombarded local residents and merchants with flyers and letters stating their opinions and that of various scientists on the safety or hazards of cell phone antennas.

The battle became particularly heated when the Ministry distributed a Nov. 1 information sheet, which, according to members of the nursery school and senior center, fudged the facts.

The Ministry's newsletter stated: "Prior to making our decision, we hosted meetings in which NVM staff, Pac Bell, the Nursery School, and the Senior Center discussed the cellular antennas. The groups indicated they would not oppose the antennas during these initial meetings. Their responses helped us decide to allow the cellular antennas to be located in our building."

Nursery school director Nina Youkelson and board president Amy Morris were furious when they saw the flyer. They replied in a letter stating that although representatives from the school attended the meetings with Pac Bell and the Ministry, they had voiced no opinions on the matter. This was because they were representing a cooperative nursery school that makes its decisions as a group.

Later, the school voted almost unanimously against the antennas.

"We are disturbed and surprised that our attempts at polite discourse with the Ministry...have been misrepresented in your neighborhood newsletter as an indication we were unopposed to the idea of cellular phone antennas maintained over the heads of our children," the letter stated.

Seniors from the Noe Valley Senior Center also submitted a petition stating their opposition to the antennas.

Huff replied that she did not want to misrepresent either the school or the senior center, but that in "informal discussions with individual members" of both organizations after the Pac Bell meetings, she heard what she interpreted as comments that did not support, but also did not oppose the antennas.

Speaking after the Nov. 15 meeting, the nursery school's Youkelson also voiced skepticism about the large amount of money the Ministry said it would need to make building improvements. "I don't know, maybe that's one of the problems with being so long in the same place," she said. "But I've walked in here almost every day for 29 years, and everything looks just fine.

"Now all of a sudden they need hundreds of thousands of dollars to do these repairs," she continued.

"As Americans, I think we are sold the idea that we need to have the biggest and the best. But maybe there are other possibilities," said Youkelson. "I mean, why drive a Mercedes when a used Toyota will get you where you need to go?"

In the meantime, Supervisor Tom Ammiano has asked the city attorney's office to draw up legislation calling for a temporary halt on the installation of cell phone antennas. During the moratorium, he wants the Board of Supervisors to come up with a master plan showing where the antennas will -- and will not -- be allowed.

One Noe Valley resident, who preferred not to give her name, said it would be fine with her if antenna sites were banned from the neighborhood. It might cement the area's reputation as a "black hole" of telecommunications, with slim chances of good cell phone reception.

"But then no one would bother trying to call as they're driving down our streets," she said. "Seriously, you see people doing the stupidest things, such as running red lights, while they're chatting away on their cell phones."