Siting the cell tower

You don’t have to be a teenager to know that cell phones have become as central to modern life as traditional telephones have been for decades. Almost non-existent 10 years ago, they are now used by nearly 60 million Americans and many times that number worldwide.

While it’s easy to appreciate the myriad ways cell phones have changed our lives, it’s much harder to know what long-term effects the blanketing radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic radiation cell phone towers emit is having on our bodies. Federal Communications Commission standards are based on thermal effects, or the RFs’ ability to heat tissue, in the same way a microwave oven cooks food. The nonthermal hazards, however, may also be substantial. Many studies have found cause for alarm, just as competing studies have insisted there is no danger.

The problem local authorities face when considering where to site new cell phone towers is that they are not allowed to consider the potential health risks. Section 704 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that, while communities reserve their rights to decide on the location and size of cell towers, they cannot ban them outright and cannot consider health effects in their deliberations.

Thus it was that the Chico Planning Commission last week found itself flummoxed when considering a new cell phone tower Nextel is proposing for the Elks Lodge site, in east Chico. (See “Cellular division,” Newslines, page 11.) The site is close enough to existing residences, within 500 feet, to require a use permit. Although nearly a dozen neighbors stood up to express their worries about radiation, the commissioners, though clearly sympathetic, couldn’t respond to their concerns. Unsure what to do, they finally decided to have an independent consultant study the issue further.

We believe Nextel representatives when they say there is a need for better signals in that part of Chico. We also believe the neighbors who say they are afraid of the tower. The solution would be to locate the antennas elsewhere.

Fortunately, two possible, and better, alternative sites exist in the area: at the Hooker Oak Recreation Area and at Wildwood Park. Both are well away from houses, and park users are there for only short visits. The Chico Area Recreation District has already sought to rent out some of its light standards at Hooker Oak for the placement of wireless antennas. In February 2005, however, the Chico City Council failed to pass an amendment to its wireless ordinance that would have allowed antennas to be placed in parks.

The Hooker Oak proposal is not dead, however, and is working its way through the pipeline again. It should be expedited. It and the Wildwood Park site are both preferable to the Elks Lodge site, not only in terms of health but also because they would generate revenue for CARD—giving money back to taxpayers.