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Resistance Mounts to Cell Phone Antennas
By Denise Minor
Noe Valley's landmark church steeple at 1021 Sanchez St. has become a lightning rod for a controversy that is igniting throughout the country.
The Noe Valley Ministry and many of its neighbors are in a heated battle over whether the church can allow Cellular One and Pacific Bell Mobile Services to install cellular telephone antennas in its steeple. The fight has attracted the attention of two city supervisors and television stations from as far away as Fresno.
"Who has the right to decide where we install antennas for cellular telephones?" asked San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano. "The federal law says that municipalities cannot take health concerns into consideration when mandating where to put these things."
"Well, I say too bad to that," Ammiano continued. "We need to have some local controls."
He said he was impressed by the organization of the Noe Valley neighbors in opposing the antenna installation. "It was a good grassroots response right away," said Ammiano. "But we also need to resolve this legislatively."
Ammiano proposes "interim controls," basically a moratorium, on cell phone transmitters until the city can further study the issue and come up with a master plan saying where they should be allowed.
According to Elizabeth Street resident Chris Beaver, San Francisco would be in good company if it did so. He cited a July 28 story in the Denver Business Journal, which stated that 266 other municipalities had put the antennas on hold.
But the minister and elders of the Noe Valley Ministry say they believe the city's Health Department, which has spent two years studying the issue and concluded that there is no health hazard posed by radio emissions from the antennas.
"We believe the generally accepted science that is out there -- that there is no health hazard from these emissions," said Interim Minister Joan Huff.
"This disagreement has moved beyond a debate about the facts," Huff continued. "It has more to do with people's emotional response to the issue."
She also said that the monthly stipend the Ministry would receive from Cellular One and Pac Bell would lift them out of dire financial straits. Huff would not say how much the Ministry would be paid, but she did say it was "significantly more" than the $1,000 per month published in a city newspaper.
"Our building use fees would increase by 50 percent for five years, which for our small church is considerable," said Huff.
But many of the church's neighbors are furious about the contract between the Ministry and the cell phone companies. They say that there is ample scientific evidence that humans living in close proximity to cell phone antennas could suffer health consequences.
"The bottom line is -- they don't have our consent to do this," said Beaver. "There has not been enough study on the effects of these emissions. They are committing me and the other neighbors to a course of experimentation."
Some of the neighbors attended two information meetings held by Pacific Bell at the Ministry in August and September. They submitted a petition with 30 signatures urging the Ministry to turn down the contract, as well as a packet of news articles about scientific debates going on throughout the world on whether or not cell phone emissions are dangerous.
Parents of the Noe Valley Nursery
School, which is housed at the Ministry, al-so voted to oppose the antenna installation.
Nonetheless, the church's Session (governing board of six elders) voted unanimously on Sept. 30 to approve not only a contract with Pacific Bell, but also one with Cellular One, something the neighbors did not know was on the table.
"It was a difficult decision for the whole Session. We did listen to all the concerns of the neighbors," said Huff the next day. At that time, she termed those neighbors opposed to the antennas as a "small, vocal opposition."
But following the Session's vote, the opposition reacted swiftly and grew sizably. The following Sunday, about 50 protesters began what has become a weekly picketing of the church, as members enter to attend services.
At least three local television stations covered the first demonstration, said Jeannine Kay of 23rd Street. Another Noe Valley resident received a call from a friend in Fresno who saw coverage of the event on the evening news.
Supervisor Sue Bierman attended the Oct. 26 demonstration and said she fully supported Ammiano's call for a temporary halt to installation of cellular phone antennas in the city.
Every Monday night since the church elders' vote, neighbors have been meeting to strategize and exchange information.
"The number of people in our group has been growing with each meeting," said Kay. "Last Monday we had someone come from Lincoln Avenue who's angry about Sprint putting an antenna on top of the building where he lives."
Neighbors have divided tasks. Kay took charge of contacting the head of the Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. She has also called other neighborhood organizations where similar battles over cellular telephones have been waged.
Beaver has telephoned scientists from Chicago to Australia to learn more about studies done on cellular telephone transmissions.
Other members of the group have telephoned the city supervisors, the Planning Department, and the Public Utilities Commission. In late October, they were considering a noontime press conference and demonstration at Pac Bell's downtown headquarters.
And all of them have been busy collecting signatures. "Now we're getting people walking up to us on the street and saying they want to sign the petition," said Beaver. By mid-October they had 650 signatures.
Huff said that she did not believe that those in opposition to the antennas were a majority in the neighborhood. She said the Ministry had gotten numerous telephone calls and letters from people supporting the church who would be nervous about taking a public stand against the Ministry's neighbors.
"Some people have told us how agonizing it was to be approached by their neighbors to sign a petition and to say 'no' to them," said Huff.
All the bad publicity has not changed the Ministry's stance, she said. "What we need to do now is get our point of view out there." The first step was to mail a letter explaining their decision to all the neighbors who had been invited to Pacific Bell's informational meetings.
Roger Drosd, who lives just outside Noe Valley on Collingwood Street, said he uses a Pac Bell cell phone and fully supports the Ministry.
"What strikes me is that there are a lot of uninformed people out there," said Drosd. "People have been studying EMFs [electromagnetic fields] for 20 years, and nobody has come up with any evidence of any health problems, particularly at such low levels as these would be.
"I would suspect that if these neighbors looked into their own homes, their telephones, and televisions, not to mention clock radios and everything else, they would find that they are getting a significantly higher dosage of EMFs than is put out by these antennae, which is infinitesimally small," said Drosd.
"I believe Pac Bell has even offered to come out with meters and measure the EMF levels in homes before and after the antenna installation," he said. "But no one is listening. This is one of those issues that has disintegrated into a political hot button," he continued.
Beaver responded that he has heard the same argument about secondhand cigarette smoke. "If someone else wants to subject themselves to something, that is their business. But I want to minimize my exposure to EMFs," he said.
Since he began investigating cell phone emissions, Beaver has become wary of radiation of all sorts. "The whole point is to minimize your exposure. I've stopped using a cordless phone and the dimmer switches on our lights. Now I don't even like to blow my hair dry."
Beaver is certain that there is a connection between EMFs and cancer, and says that no one really knows at what point it is triggered. "If I live next to an antenna in Noe Valley for decades, then get cancer when I'm 75, who's to say what contributed and how much?"
Drosd points out, however, that soon-er or later Pac Bell and Cellular One will make a deal to put their antennas on some building in Noe Valley. So why shouldn't the Ministry be the one to benefit? "I understand that there is an alternative site proposed, but it would be such a shame if an institution as worthy as the Noe Valley Ministry doesn't get the money," he said.
Drosd also said he would be pleased to see an antenna installation in the neighborhood -- Noe Valley currently has none -- because he is often here and needs to use his cell phone for business. His daughter attends James Lick School, and he regularly picks her up. He also owns rental property here.
"It's really a pain. I was recently at a home I own, and I had to crawl up on the roof to get reception," said Drosd.
Lynn Bunim, director of Pac Bell's External Affairs Department, said she hears numerous complaints from customers such as Drosd. "There's a woman living in Noe Valley who has to drive outside the neighborhood to access her voice mail," said Bunim.
"The PCS [Personal Communications Services phone] we offer has, as a feature, voice mail," she continued. "But you can only access your voice mail with your cell phone. So people in Noe Valley are locked out of their mailboxes."
As to an alternative site, Bunim denied that Pac Bell was looking anywhere else in Noe Valley. She has heard some people recommend storefronts on 24th Street.
"Twenty-fourth Street is problematic in that the city regulations discourage locating the antennas in NCDs [Neighborhood Commercial Districts]," she said.
"But Pacific Bell Mobile Services does want to be a good neighbor, and if the neighbors could agree on a place that would work technically and where the aesthetics would not cause a problem, we would be interested."
But for now, Pac Bell very much wants to use the church steeple. The Ministry would be ideal in many ways, said Bunim, partly because it fits the city's existing criteria for cell phone transmitters.
"The city has a policy of urging companies to consider co-location," she said. "This happens to be a site that we can share with Cellular One. The city guidelines also state that public structures are preferred, and this is a public structure."
David Hatch, property development manager at Cellular One, also denied that his company was looking at an alternative site. He said that it was coincidental that both Cellular One and Pacific Bell were able to use the Ministry.
"It is a unique case when more than one carrier can use the same space. Because of the difference in our frequencies, which is mandated by federal law, we often have to be at different levels," he said.
Right now, the two companies must hire an independent engineer to study the combined levels of EMFs that might be emitted from the antennas at the Ministry.
"They have to look at the worst-case scenario of every one of the channels from both carriers operating 24 hours a day, and do mathematical calculations to determine if the EMFs would still fall below the federal standards," said Hatch.
When the study is done, Cellular One plans to hold a public meeting at the Noe Valley Ministry.
Pastor Huff said she was not looking forward to that meeting. She feared it might turn out like the September community forum with Pac Bell.
"The second meeting with Pac Bell disintegrated into a polarized gathering," she said. "Something like that is not useful for those who come to hear information -- particularly those who come with an open mind."
After the meeting, if they are not dissuaded by the neighbors, both carriers will then approach the Planning Commission for a hearing to obtain a conditional use permit. All neighbors within 300 feet of the Ministry will be invited to attend the hearing.
If Supervisor Ammiano has his way, though, that hearing will be a long time in coming. He proposes halting installation of new antennas until the city comes up with a master plan showing where it is safe to do so. That could take months.
"Let's put the brakes on this," said Ammiano, "because these antennas are popping up everywhere."