Noe Valley Voice February 1998

Residents Vow To Block All New Antennas

By Denise Minor

Neighbors of the Noe Valley Ministry may have won their battle to keep six cellular telephone antennas from being installed in the church steeple. But they say their work is not done.

"We plan to meet with Noe Valley merchants and let them know that we strongly oppose these antennas going in anywhere in the neighborhood, not just the Ministry," said Elizabeth Street resident Judy Irving in mid-January.

Irving is a member of Noe Valley Families Against the Antennas, a group that organized in September to fight an agreement between the Ministry and two mobile phone companies: Pac Bell Mobile Services and Cellular One. They wrote letters to city officials, picketed the Ministry every Sunday for two months, and collected about 880 petition signatures.

The group also collected data from scientists around the world that indicated there might be health hazards caused by electromagnetic radiation from cell phone antennas.

In early December both companies withdrew their applications to install antennas on the church roof. The Ministry is located at 1021 Sanchez St., between Elizabeth and 23rd streets.

"We have to respect the feelings of the neighborhood," said David Hatch, property development manager at Cellular One. "We decided that, based on what we'd been hearing from the neighbors, it was better to back out."

Irving paused only a few days to celebrate, then began planning how best to move the battle out into the rest of the neighborhood. "We're not just concerned about our little area," she said.

In late December she sent the Noe Valley Merchants Association a press kit with articles about the possible health effects of cellular telephone antenna emissions. She was scheduled to speak at the group's Jan. 28 meeting.

"I'm going to tell them we are intent on keeping these antennas out of the neighborhood and I'm going to ask for their support," said Irving.

She said she realized that most merchants didn't own the buildings in which their businesses were located, but that she was going to ask the merchants to contact her organization if they learned that someone had entered into negotiations with the cell phone companies.

The Ministry, meanwhile, is trying to regroup and find new ways to make up for the $29,000 the church was to receive annually for renting out the steeple.

Interim Pastor Joan Huff said she was disappointed that Cellular One and Pac Bell had bowed out of the deal, particularly after the church weathered months of picketing and bad publicity.

But she said the Ministry still had a few options for taking care of its $60,000 debt, as well as for paying for work on the building to make it earthquakeproof and wheelchair-accessible.

The first priority, however, would most likely be an $80,000 electrical rewiring job, because the current wiring is too old to be safe. "The rewiring was to be an upfront gift from Pac Bell," said Huff. "Even though they're gone, it has to be done."

As for the debt, Huff said help might come from the national offices of the Presbytery. "They might refinance us out of the debt," she said.

In mid-January, a small group of Ministry members and other building users met to hear a proposal by Peter Gabel of Elizabeth Street to form a community board to help run the building as a nonprofit entity separate from the Ministry.

Many groups and individuals -- such as a nursery school, a senior citizens center, two concert series, dance classes, and a variety of 12-step groups -- use the building for nominal fees. Gabel has suggested that the building is a community resource for which the 40-member congregation should not have to bear full financial responsibility. Additionally, a nonprofit community center could apply for grants that might be off limits to churches.

"It could be a beautiful combination of community and church leadership to share responsibility for running the building," said Gabel.

Gabel is president of San Francisco's New College and has considerable experience in forming and running a nonprofit agency.

But Gabel said he received a lukewarm response at the January meeting. "I arrived with a proposal which I thought I'd been asked to present," he said. "I felt a little puzzled by the fact that neither the minister nor any of the Session [the church's governing body] was there."

Tim Hart-Anderson, president of the board of trustees of the Presbytery, was at the meeting and told Gabel that the proposal was highly unusual.

"The only person at the meeting speaking with some authority for the church rejected the idea," said Gabel.

Gabel then suggested that the Ministry organize "block captains" to be in charge of fundraising for the church. That idea appeared to go over better with the group, he said.

Gabel brought to the meeting a $1,000 donation from neighbors, and he said he intended to keep on working to keep the Ministry solvent. "The Ministry is a great community resource," said Gabel, whose son attends the Noe Valley Nursery School at the Ministry. "I just hope we can come up with some sort of collaborative relationship between it and the neighbors."

Huff said that the Session would consider Gabel's proposal at its February meeting. But she believes that the congregation is leaning against giving up any control of the building.

"Turning over part of control of the church would be highly unusual, particularly since the church has adopted a mission statement saying that the congregation wants to grow significantly in the next five years."

As yet, they have no specific ideas about how to expand. But the Session's first order of business will be to choose a new pastor, said Huff, and when that person takes the Ministry reins, she or he will begin an outreach campaign.

"We are realizing that the surest form of funding is that which comes from our own membership," said Huff. "The congregation raised its own church offering over 25 percent from 1997 to 1998."

As for the cellular phone companies, both claim they have nothing in the works regarding new antenna locations in our neighborhood.

"At the present time, we're not exploring any sites in Noe Valley," said Lynn Bunim of Pacific Bell's External Affairs Department. "And every day I hear from people who are frustrated. Last night a customer called and said she couldn't use her cell phone right outside her home," Bunim added.

Hatch said Cellular One had no new leads either. "We're back to square one."