Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 29, 2010

Residents concerned about church cell tower

Neighbors worry proposed cell-phone spire on Channing Avenue will harm health

by Sally Schilling

A proposed 8-foot-tall cell-phone tower atop St. Albert the Great Church in Palo Alto has some neighbors upset about the mix of the sacred and the profane, which they fear could hurt their health.

The AT&T tower, which would stand at the west end of the sanctuary at 1095 Channing Ave., would have a cross mounted on the top segment of the tower, which would be in a "churchlike" tower.

The communications company recently activated its new "distributed antenna system" in Palo Alto, which improved coverage along Welch Road and surrounding areas. It plans to upgrade its towers to handle newer and faster devices, according to company spokesman John Britton.

But the church's neighbors don't want a cell-phone tower sprinkling signals above their heads like holy water.

"I started talking to my neighbors and most people are worried about the radiation," Tru Love said after receiving a notice from the city informing residents who live within 600 feet of the site of the proposed project.

Love was especially concerned with the cell tower's proximity to children who attend Saint Elizabeth Seton School on the church's property.

"I feel sorry for the kids," she said, questioning whether the church had properly informed the schoolchildren's parents.

But Kristen Parineh, the city's sustainability planner, said in an e-mail to Love on Oct. 18 that the city can make sure the tower meets electromagnetic-field (EMF) standards.

"As a city we only have a certain amount of discretion on these types of projects. We can make sure that they meet the federal regulations for EMF, and we can make sure that they put it in the best possible location within the area, and we can make sure that they design it as well as possible to meet our design guidelines, but we can not absolutely prohibit it from a neighborhood where that cell-phone carrier has bad reception," she wrote.

Love said she thinks there is a more appropriate spot.

"I think they should put the cell tower at the Palo Alto Fire Station 3 — Rinconada Station at 799 Embarcadero Road. They already have an existing tower. It would meet all EMF regulations. It's not near children. You wouldn't even notice it. And it's only five blocks away from the proposed site at the church," Tru said in an e-mail to Parineh.

Parineh said she has received e-mails and calls from neighboring residents concerned with both the appearance and the health risks of the tower. She has received no calls from parents of the schoolchildren at Saint Elizabeth Seton, however.

The church and AT&T applied for a conditional-use building permit but the city found it to be incomplete. The church and AT&T will revise the application and plan to meet with concerned residents for public input before the resubmission, she said. No date has been set.

One concern has been whether AT&T can add the equipment to an already existing tower on the church property, city Planning Manager Amy French said.

"We want them to explain why they can't use the existing tower and to also show the existing tower on the drawings for the plans," she said.

French is the initial decision-maker for the city. If she approves the process, it will become effective 14 days later unless a hearing is requested in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission, she said.

Saint Albert the Great Church and St. Elizabeth Seton School representatives did not return calls seeking comment. However, the director of media relations at the Diocese of San Jose, to which the church belongs, spoke to what she considered the benefits of the new cell tower.

"The companies pay the church, so that's a plus. Parishes could always use the funds and cell towers are needed for more cell-phone use," Roberta Ward said.

James Singleton, project manager at NSA Wireless, Inc., which develops cell-tower sites and is involved in AT&T's site, talked about the project.

"It is normal for wireless facilities to be put in residential areas. More need for wireless is driven by customers using iPhones, laptops and cellular devices to an extreme," he said.

"The need is purely driven by existing capacity levels. Additional sites are necessary ... to meet demand," he added.

The city always requires the cell-phone company to submit a report showing that the electromagnetic-field impact meets Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines, he said.

But companies often add an extra safety margin into their proposals to account for FCC guidelines, for a site, said William Hammett, principal of Hammett & Edison, Inc., an engineering consulting firm in San Francisco that reviews the impacts of cell towers.

Edison & Hammett reviewed the impact of a proposed cell tower at Aldersgate United Methodist Church on Manuela Avenue in Palo Alto. The Dec. 20, 2004, report showed that the maximum calculated level of exposure of any nearby residence would be only 0.89 percent of the limit, he said.

"If people are worried about an adequate safety margin, there's (often) an extra margin, often 100 times the margin," he said.

Residents can view the cell-tower plans at the City Development Center, 285 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto.

TALK ABOUT IT

Are you concerned that cell-phone towers affect people's health? Share your thoughts on Town Square, the community discussion forum at Palo Alto Online.

Editorial Intern Sally Schilling can be reached at sschilling@embarcaderopublishing.com.

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