Noe Valley Voice March 2004

Sprint Seeks OK to Put Antenna On Bank Building

By Peter Orsi

It wasn't all that long ago that Noe Valley residents took on the telecoms--and won.

In fall 1997, neighbors mobilized to fight an attempt to place Pacific Bell and Cellular One cell phone transmitters atop the Noe Valley Ministry, circulating petitions and picketing outside church services for weeks. City Supervisor Tom Ammiano got involved, too, hailing the neighbors' grassroots campaign and championing their cause at City Hall. In December, company officials bowed to public pressure and scuttled their antenna plans.

What a difference six years makes.

Fast-forward to 2004, when another wireless carrier wants to bring an antenna to Noe Valley. This time it's Sprint PCS, which has filed a permit application with the city to install a transmitter atop the Washington Mutual Bank at the corner of 24th and Noe. So far the proposal has attracted cautious attention from the community, but little public outcry.

Sprint's proposal calls for three antennas mounted inside a tube that is approximately 6 feet tall and designed to look like a ventilation pipe. A refrigerator-size base station that powers the transmitter would also be installed.

Jennifer Estes of Peacock Associates, a consulting firm hired by Sprint to shepherd the project, said the carrier's goal was to improve service to Noe Valley customers, who she said had long complained of spotty wireless coverage. "They can't make calls from inside their businesses and homes, especially during the busy hours."

Estes declined to release data on dropped calls and service gaps, saying competitors could use that information to their advantage. She said the nearest Sprint transmitter, located atop St. Luke's Hospital on Cesar Chavez Street, had been unable to provide consistent coverage to hilly Noe Valley.

Some 25 residents attended a meeting with Sprint representatives at the Noe Valley Library Feb. 12, according to Friends of Noe Valley President Marybeth Wallace. "People wanted to hear what was being said. They were asking hard questions," she said, "but I wasn't hearing many people who were opposed." (About a dozen people showed up at a similar meeting Jan. 20.)

In 1997, the opposition was much greater. Back then, "there was a real strong feeling and concern because of the childcare center" located in the Ministry, Wallace said. "That just hit different, and I think that time has passed and there are cells all over."

Wallace said Friends was remaining neutral for now, since "there was no movement in the association" to adopt an official stance. "The general feeling from the night of the 12th was that we really can't come up with anything to go against it."

Which is not to say that there is no opposition at all.

Eighteen-year Noe Valley resident Tracey Hughes, who lives less than a block from the bank and attended both meetings, said she was concerned about the potential negative health effects of the cell phone signals.

A member of San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union and a veteran of the 1997 transmitter battle, Hughes is circulating a petition to oppose the Sprint plan.

"There's a sentiment in this neighborhood that they're not wanted," she said. "What I'm concerned about is that the industry is not concerned."

According to Estes, the transmitter is designed to operate within the Federal Communications Commission's electromagnetic frequency emission limit, 1 milliwatt per square centimeter.

Exposure at ground level would be .001 milliwatts per square centimeter, she said, or .1 percent of the FCC guidelines. Levels outside the upper floors of the nearest building would be higher--about .08 milliwatts per square centimeter, or 8 percent of the FCC limit, but would drop significantly inside.

Radiation from the transmitter would be lower than the emissions from household items like microwave ovens, said EMF specialist Peter Paulsen, a scientist hired by Sprint to speak at the Jan. 20 meeting.

But that's hardly comforting to Hughes and others, who worry that in a world that gets more wireless every year, the cumulative effects of radiation from multiple sources might increase the health risk.

"I don't see that this particular antenna is likely to make a difference either way, but I do see this as part of a larger trend," said Borden Armstrong, who lives about half a block away from the proposed site. "I am concerned not with this as much as the direction of society as a whole, and our prioritizing of immediate consumption over more long-term consequences."

The scientific community is somewhat divided on electromagnetic radiation. Some independent studies have linked it to adverse health effects, such as cancer. Other scientists have been unable to confirm the findings, however, and most regard those studies with skepticism.

But in Hughes' opinion, lack of definitive evidence doesn't mean electromagnetic radiation isn't dangerous. "It's like asbestos," she said. "It does something ... we just don't know what yet."

By law, communities cannot block antennas based on concerns about unproven negative health effects. So Hughes said she and others planned to oppose Sprint on the grounds that using this location would break a city zoning ordinance banning cell towers from sites without a rear yard that is at least 25 percent of the lot's depth. The Washington Mutual property does not have a back yard.

Estes responded that the regulations are different for corner lots and that the San Francisco Planning Commission would have the final say over how to interpret the rules for this case.

The city assigns the highest priority for transmitter sites to public buildings such as schools, post offices, and hospitals. The bank, which is zoned for mixed business and residential use, is designated as a "preference six" site.

Sprint investigated a number of "preference one" locations but deemed them unsuitable, Estes said. For example, the single-story post office on 24th Street is surrounded by taller buildings that would block the signals.

Estes said the agreement to place the tower atop Washington Mutual was struck with the building owner, not the bank. City records list Angus Brunner and Mary Land Fohr as the owners of the property.

Reached by phone, Brunner said he was unaware of any contract with Sprint. Brunner said the land is currently managed by Richard Fohr of Napa, who is responsible for paying taxes and administering leases. Fohr did not return calls seeking comment.

Estes stressed that Sprint's proposal is just that--a proposal. "We're not married to the site," she said. She added that she would probably present the application to the Planning Commission in two to three months and that the installation of the transmitter was likely a year away.

"I've advised Sprint to move slow," Estes said. "We're aware of the history of wireless sites in Noe Valley." m