It's not over same-sex marriage, abortion or any other obvious hot-button issue.
The controversy involves a ubiquitous technology for which the church is not normally known: cell-phone towers.
In Palo Alto and throughout the Bay Area the issue is arising in cities and towns. Churches, schools and public buildings are taking advantage of the lucrative land-leasing market, adding to their bottom lines with a little help from AT&T, Sprint Nextel, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile.
Residents from Richmond to Cupertino are up in arms over the leases, which place the 60-plus-foot towers in residential neighborhoods, often near schools. They say that transmitter radiation poses health risks and the towers emit a hum that is disturbing. Residents also fear that towers will lower property values.
But mobile-services providers say the health risks are minimal. In most cases, the radiation levels are far below Federal Communication Commission (FCC) standards, they say.
With the ever-increasing demand for data and other services that go beyond the phone call — enabling video, music, texting, image transmission, smart-home and wireless medical, business and government-management applications — providers are trying to boost their coverage and bandwidth, industry spokespersons said.
The issue is being taken on by Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a San Jose nonprofit. Its Wireless Communications Initiative is working with cities, businesses, the public and the industry to promote model ordinances, help develop an area-wide infrastructure for wireless services, and assist the industry and municipalities in working together.
Companies can't accommodate the growing needs with the existing bandwidth, said Amy Storey, communications director for CTIA - The Wireless Association. CTIA (formerly the Cellular Telephone Industries Association) is an international nonprofit group representing the wireless industry in Washington, D.C.
"Watching YouTube consumes 100 times the bandwidth of a voice call. The estimated mobile-data usage of a single mobile subscriber in 2015 will be 450 times what it was in 2005," Storey said.
Storey said the Library of Congress' collections and public demand for them illustrate one example of the pressures on the existing network.
The Library's National Digital Library Program has been digitizing certain collections and archival materials since 1995. Thousands of books, pamphlets, motion pictures, manuscripts and sound recordings will be available to the public at lightning speed.
"There are 22 million books in the Library of Congress," she said. To get a sense of how much data was carried by the nation's wireless networks in the first half of 2010, it's equivalent to the entire Library of Congress being sent 1.5 times every hour, every day. "That's 161.5 billion megabytes from January to June," she said.
From July to December 2009, wireless networks carried 107.8 billion megabytes of data traffic, according to a CTIA study.
"Even in those six months, there was a tremendous increase in data traffic. Towers are a very important part of our demand," she said.
AT&T has seen a 5,000 percent increase in data traffic over the past few years. The company spent $1.1 billion on its wireless network in California in the last six months, spokesman Lane Kasselman said.
"That's significant. From 2007 to 2009, AT&T spent maybe $2.5 billion per year annually on infrastructure," he said.
The company has applied for conditional-use permits to install a number of towers in the past few years, including at least two in residential areas: a 75-foot-high tower at the Eichler Swim and Tennis Club on Louis Road and a 60-foot tower at St. Albert the Great Catholic Church on Channing Avenue.
In November, AT&T withdrew its application for the Eichler Club site following a vigorous campaign by residents, who were concerned the tower would be close to Palo Verde Elementary School. Kasselman, however, said the company decided it probably could not get the variance it needed for the higher tower, which exceeded city 65-foot height limits.
Is it even necessary to build towers in residential areas?
"Palo Alto is a very tech-savvy city. It's unrivaled in the number of smart-phone users. We're seeing a record decrease of levels of wire-phone lines. People are switching to their cell phones only," Kasselman said.
Nationally, 22.7 percent of American homes are "cell phone only," according to a 2009 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Nearly half of adults ages 25 to 29 lived in households with only wireless phones.
"Folks say, 'Why don't you put the towers in commercial districts?' But that's not where people live" or need better mobile service, Kasselman said.
"The carriers have already built on the 'low-hanging fruit' — the commercial and industrial areas," Ken Schmidt, president of Steel in the Air Inc., said. His consulting firm helps people, businesses and cities negotiate leases with wireless-communications companies.
Users want ubiquitous coverage and fewer dropped calls, he said.
"Note that this is different from the issue of simply having coverage in an area. Most areas have coverage and can see four bars on the phone — but bars on the phone don't tell you how frequently you drop a call or how speedy your data connection is," he said.
Enter the churches, school districts, libraries and park districts within residential areas. Such sites are attractive to cellular companies, he said.
The benefit can be lucrative for the lessee as well as the companies.
Nationally, private landowners have netted roughly $1.25 billion annually from leases, Schmidt estimated.
About 15 to 20 percent of Schmidt's clients are churches — "primarily because the decision makers realize that they need an outside consultant to advise them on the value of the lease rather than making that decision themselves and potentially not fulfilling their fiduciary duty to the church," he said.
Leases can pay from $500 to $10,000 per month, although the higher figure is rare, he said.
At Palo Alto's Aldersgate United Methodist Church on Manuela Avenue, the church has received $1,600 per month from AT&T since a tower disguised as a pine tree was constructed on the property about two years ago, said a church representative who declined to be named.
The tower was somewhat controversial. Residents who had poor phone coverage supported the tower, but others were opposed, he said. But no one has complained since the tower was built, he added.
Schmidt said the trend is likely to continue, as more school and park districts are approaching his company. But most times, it's the company that approaches the church or school.
Chuck Tully, business manager for St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Palo Alto, the parish that decided to allow a tower at St. Albert the Great, said the church "was not looking for" the lease, which he estimated would amount to between $1,500 and $2,500 per month.
"What's kind of nice is, it's income month after month. Every little bit helps. Is it significant to the overall budget? Probably not," he said.
Schmidt said the churches and schools are not the first choices among telecommunications carriers. The industry has historically built towers where they were easier to approve, on commercial and industrial parcels.
"The only reason a cellular provider approaches a church or a school is because they don't have a better option. This is due to zoning requirements whereby the local municipality requires that a new tower cannot be constructed and that the cellular providers must use existing structures.
"Because steeples are the tallest structures in many small or historic small towns or even in large cities, the carriers look to the churches. It really is a last choice though for the carriers," he said.
Ian Abel, facilities manager for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Jose, said the churches are not taking the offers lightly, despite the money.
"The first question we asked is, 'Is it legal and is it healthful?'" he said.
Tully said the church has been doing "due diligence" by researching the towers and working to have a neighborhood meeting and to be in touch with schools and parents.
But some residents believe the towers aren't necessary.
They cite data gathered on websites such as www.antennasearch.com, which show hundreds of towers and hundreds more smaller antennas already installed throughout Palo Alto.
While the accuracy of sites might be variable — there are likely towers that are not listed because the FCC does not require their registration — the sites may be the best guess as to how many towers exist. Palo Alto officials in the utilities and planning departments conceded recently they have no comprehensive way of tracking wireless facilities.
A recent search on the website of the Weekly's address at 450 Cambridge Ave. found 103 towers and 500 antennas within a four-mile radius. Three applications were in process, according to the site.
Tru Love and her husband, Stephen Stuart, found 13 towers in commercially zoned districts within one mile of the proposed St. Albert tower and they have spearheaded a campaign against its construction.
They cite peer-reviewed research that documents the detrimental effects of the towers on property values — up to 20 percent lower.
Eleven real estate agents have also supported their contention and petitioned against the St. Albert tower in November.
Love and Stuart want the city to request an audit from AT&T regarding its wireless-communications facilities in the city and a presentation showing why it cannot simply co-locate at any of the existing facilities used by other carriers.
Six of the 13 towers "are registered to companies acquired by AT&T and there are seven others on which AT&T may co-locate. Prove that this tower is necessary," they told city officials in a Nov. 15 letter.
Love and Stuart also want the city to develop a wireless plan.
"The City of Palo Alto has a very weak zoning ordinance for wireless communications facilities. The city's Comprehensive Plan makes no mention of wireless communication facilities whatsoever," Love said, comparing it to extensive ordinances created by the cities of Richmond and Glendale (in Southern California) a few years ago.
Curtis Williams, director of planning and community environment, said the city has a zoning ordinance regarding wireless-communications facilities that requires a conditional-use permit when the facility is to be located in a residentially zoned parcel, is a stand-alone structure or if the height of a building-mounted antenna exceeds the height of the building.
The city encourages, but does not require, locating the towers on non-residential property and encourages screening, co-location with other facilities and architectural compatibility, such as the pine-tree towers, he said.
"The city is prohibited by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 from regulating wireless-communications facilities based on radiation emissions," he said. (See sidebar for story on health effects.)
Where a proposed site is of concern to neighbors, the city generally requires extensive information regarding the radius of coverage needed and an evaluation of other alternative sites, he said.
Williams said a study session next year with Joint Venture Silicon Valley will look at new technologies, such as the Distributed Antenna System (DAS), a setup of smaller antennas usually placed on utility poles, and how the city should plan for the upcoming 4G network, which is the latest system being implemented by the carriers.
The demand for new towers in residential areas caused City of Richmond officials to adopt an emergency moratorium to stop applications for wireless-communications facilities a few years ago, Lena Velasco, interim planning director, said.
City leaders formed an advisory group with carriers and residents to develop an agreed-upon policy. In 2009, a 30-page ordinance established standards for the towers and prioritized zones and required "maximum achievable setbacks" from schools, child-care facilities, residences, hospitals and mixed-use areas.
The law "puts the onerous proof on the carrier" to show that a location within a residential area is the only alternative and the best site, she said.
Since the ordinance was adopted and revised, there have been few problems, she said. But recently an issue arose when the city approved a structure in a public/civic zone at a reservoir. The existing law does not require a setback in that area, but the site is adjacent to residences.
Richmond brought in outside counsel and experts when it formulated its law and looked at ordinances in Berkeley, Albany and Orinda, she said.
There are always unanticipated consequences — some things that can't be identified in advance, even with the best intentions, she said.
"It hasn't worked as completely as we anticipated. But overall, people feel better than they did two or three years ago."