Planning Commission struggles with proposed wireless tower
Are cellular phone towers dangerous? To the neighbors of the Elks Lodge who brought their worries to the city Planning Commission last week, they definitely are.
At issue was a 125-foot tower that Nextel wants to erect near the southern boundary of the Elks’ 13-acre parcel at East and Manzanita avenues. Because the tower is more than 100 feet tall and is to be located within 500 feet of existing residences, city ordinance requires a use permit.
One neighbor, Rita Craddock, said she’d done a Google search on the health hazards of the towers’ electromagnetic emissions and gotten “810,000 hits, and on Yahoo! 237,000 hits.” Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines allow workers on the towers to spend only six minutes on them at a time, she said: “That’s how dangerous they are.”
Other neighbors spoke of the anxiety they felt living only 350 feet from the towers and not knowing what the long-term exposure to the emissions might be doing to them and their children.
One, Kris Koenig, a science educator as well as the founder of the Kiwanis Chico Community Observatory in Bidwell Park, became visibly emotional as he talked about his wife’s thyroid cancer and other health problems in his family that he attributes to electromagnetic radiation.
However, because the towers’ emissions would be well within federal guidelines—Nextel’s antenna would release “less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the allowed federal standard,” said Greg Redeker, the assistant city planner handling the proposal—the commissioners could not consider possible health effects in deciding on the use permit. The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits local authorities from nixing new towers on the basis of perceived health dangers, “and nothing is going to trump the federal law,” as Planning Director Kim Seidler put it.
In fact, the act makes it difficult if not impossible to turn down a cell tower if the builder can demonstrate just two things: that it is needed and there is no better place to put it. To some extent, that is the case with the Nextel tower.
The best sites for towers are industrial zones, Redeker said, but there are none in northeast Chico. The Elks’ land is zoned PQ, or public/quasi-public, and by ordinance is the only allowable site in the area.
The only problem, he added, is that the shape of the site doesn’t allow the tower to be farther than 500 feet away from existing residences or nearby land that is zoned for residences.
Nextel’s Frank Schabarum, who develops cell tower sites for the company, told the commission that three other wireless companies—Cingular, Verizon and Metro PCS—are “chomping at the bit” to share the tower with Nextel. All of the companies believe that signal strength in northeast Chico is lacking, which is why they want to invest in the tower.
And Rick Fortier, exalted ruler of the Elks, told the commission his group welcomed the additional income the tower would bring, saying it would be plowed back into services for the community.
There was little opposition among the neighbors to the look of the so-called “stealth monopine tower,” though one man noted that it would be highly visible and a woman noted that it would be as high as a 12-story building. The tower would be camouflaged to look like a big tree, Schabarum noted, and Nextel had already agreed to give it a more conical shape than the tower shown in photographic images provided the commissioners.
But some speakers questioned the need for the tower, insisting their cell phone reception in the area was adequate. Some of the commissioners seemed to agree with them. “I don’t have a problem running into weak signals when I’m using my wife’s cell phone,” said Commissioner Jon Luvaas.
Another issue was the possibility that wireless antennas may yet be added to the light standards at the Hooker Oak Recreation Area ball fields. Currently the city’s ordinance prohibits them in parks, and an effort to amend the ordinance to allow them at Hooker Oak died on an atypical 2-2 vote of the City Council in February 2005. But the proposal is still “alive and kicking,” Redeker said in a later phone interview, and will go to the Bidwell Park and Playgrounds Commission in the next few months.
Hooker Oak would be well out of the 500-foot range, and the Chico Area Recreation District has indicated its desire to rent out its light standards as a way of generating income. Wildwood Park, across the street from the Elks Lodge, is another possible site.
Nextel and the other wireless companies are eager to move forward, however, and see the Elks site as the one that is the “faster, quicker and better alternative,” in Schubarum’s words.
They will have to wait a bit longer, however. In the end, the commission voted 3-2 on a motion by Luvaas to subject the proposal to further review by an independent consultant. Specifically, the consultant will be charged with determining whether there really is a need for the tower, whether there is a better location on the Elks’ property for it, and whether alternative sites exist in the area.