Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 18, 2011

The cellular enigma: We love the phones but hate the towers

Palo Alto should follow East Bay city's model to regulate disputes over cell phone facilities

Even in high-tech Palo Alto, where about half of the residents possess advanced degrees and iPad penetration is likely beyond 30 percent, residents can quickly descend into Hatfield vs. McCoy feuds over the very technology that keeps commerce humming here.

Just watch the reaction when AT&T or Verizon attempt to install a cell phone tower in a residential neighborhood. Rather than welcoming improved service with open arms, opponents often claim the new towers are not needed and if allowed to sprout will cause a precipitous decline in property values.

Resident Bill Moore told AT&T officials at a recent hearing about installing small antennas on existing utility poles in Professorville that he, personally, "will fight this ugly, ridiculous-looking tower like crazy."

And a recent Verizon plan to build a 65-foot antenna at the Middlefield Road Little League field is already facing a storm of criticism from parents, whose flyer beseeches residents to "help oppose this intrusion where our children live and play! If not for you, then do it for your friends and neighbors — for your community."

Given the explosion of bandwidth-gobbling technology, it is no surprise that providers are scrambling now to line up antennas to carry their signals into every nook and cranny of our community. And just as predictable is the pushback from residents who say they do not buy into the need to pepper every block with fake trees or other camouflage that hides an emitter of what they believe is dangerous radiation. In some cases, when churches or institutions like Little League fields are in play, leaders of the organizations are often swayed by the prospect of receiving a fat monthly rent check from AT&T, Verizon or another provider.

In more traditional zoning battles, residents can demand a public hearing or cite a code violation when they believe an intrusive building or technology is invading their neighborhood.

But in the case of cell phone towers, the city's regulations are anemic, at least in part due to the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which prohibits regulating wireless-communications facilities based on radiation emissions, often the most feared impact raised by opponents, especially parents.

Curtis Williams, director of planning and community development, told the Weekly last December that if a proposed site is of concern to neighbors, the city usually requires companies to submit extensive information about the radius of a tower's coverage and an evaluation of alternative sites.

But the city's policy "encourages" rather than "requires" that towers be installed on non-residential property, be located with other towers or wireless installations and be screened by pine-tree towers or similar architectural devices.

In recent months, vigorous discussions have brought out several possible solutions to this ongoing battle that sooner or later will have to be resolved.

In the debate over AT&T's application for a tower at St. Albert the Great Church, opponents urged the city to press for an audit of the company's nearby wireless facilities and show why it could not co-locate antennas on its own towers or on those owned by other companies in the area. Such information is readily available at www.antennasearch.com, which shows that hundreds of towers and a similar number of smaller antennas already are installed throughout Palo Alto.

With such information in hand, the city could decide where new towers are actually needed to provide more coverage, rather than where companies are simply trying to gain a competitive advantage.

In addition to being able to actively evaluate the need for new antennas, Palo Alto should follow the lead of the City of Richmond in the East Bay, which halted applications for new wireless-communications facilities until an advisory group developed a new policy that residents and industry members could endorse.

In 2009, Richmond passed a new ordinance establishing standards for towers and prioritized zones that require "maximum achievable setbacks" from schools, child-care facilities, residences, hospitals and mixed-use areas."

A Richmond planning official told the Weekly that 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.

This approach could work just as well in Palo Alto.

Rather than forcing residents and wireless carriers to put up with needlessly confrontational hearings, the city should move soon to write a new ordinance that would not violate federal telecommunications regulations but simply create a framework for industry and the public to cooperatively decide where new towers are needed.

The Richmond ordinance, which was developed after reviewing similar measures in the East Bay cities of Berkeley, Albany and Orinda, is proof that cities can stop the often contentious, and needless, debates about cell-phone towers.

Comments

Posted by Agreed!, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 30, 2011 at 1:02 am

I couldn't agree more! The city of Palo Alto really needs to represent just that: the city of Palo Alto. NOT AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc. As a resident of Palo Alto, I'm not at all satisfied in the way that city planning department has put the interests of it's residents first.


Posted by Agreed!, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 30, 2011 at 1:25 am

I couldn't agree more! The city of Palo Alto really needs to represent just that: the city of Palo Alto. NOT AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc. As a resident of Palo Alto, I'm not at all satisfied in the way that city planning department has put the interests of cell companies first!


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2011 at 7:38 am

Interesting article. However, I feel that house prices will be adversely affected if cell phone coverage is poor. If potential buyers cannot use their phone in the house they are interested in, the likelihood is that they will argue the price down or back out altogether. Cell phone coverage will make a big difference when trying to sell a property.


Posted by Ban cell phones, a resident of Stanford
on Mar 30, 2011 at 9:36 am

The only thing that will solve this contentious issue is a complete and total ban on cell phone ownership and usage in Palo Alto. Our lives are at stake here. These deadly cell phone towers will kill us all. Just ignore the fact that studies have shown that there is no danger from cell phones and towers--we in Palo Alto know better. At the same time a ban on use and ownership of microwave ovens should be put into place as well. After that, we need to launch a comprehensive study into the effects of radiation from electrical wires in Palo Alto, with a goal of banning electricity from the city as well.
We can not be to careful with these matters--our lives are at stake.


Posted by radiation, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 30, 2011 at 10:50 am

I believe the studies that say the towers are harmless (at least if they obey Federal regulations about power levels). I am not convinced that handheld cell phones are perfectly safe, especially when held next to your brain for hours at a time.

However, most of the NIMBY opposition is not because of health issues. Most NIMBYs are complaining the the cell phone towers are ugly and an ugly neighborhood affects their home values.


Posted by Ban cell phones, a resident of Stanford
on Mar 30, 2011 at 10:56 am

What about second hand radiation when you are near someone using a cell phone (thiscould be as dangerous as second hand smoke)? That is why we need to ban cell phones in Palo Alto--our lives are at stake. If we do not ban cell phones our children will either spend their days as deformed, mentally handicapped individuals or die horrible deaths from radiation poisoning. The time to act is now!!!


Posted by radiation, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 30, 2011 at 11:37 am

Mr. Ban cell phones is obviously a troll, but for the rest of you:

Radiation decreases dramatically as you get farther from the antenna. That is why cell phones are potentially dangerous to people holding them next to their brain, but very unlikely to hurt anyone farther away. Unless you get hit by a car driven by someone using a cell phone, of course.


Posted by Ban cell phones, a resident of Stanford
on Mar 30, 2011 at 11:42 am

"Mr. Ban cell phones is obviously a troll"

Radiation--not really. I am trying, through the use of sarcasm and exaggeration, to show how ridiculous the stance of some people in the city is.
And I bet you these same people that are complaining so much use cell phones themselves.


Posted by Judy, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 30, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I attended the meeting at Cubberley in which AT & T proposed installing 80 cell towers for more band width on existing utility poles and street lamps all over Palo Alto. One thing that was revealed is that several European countries have banned installing anymore cell towers for both aesthetic and emission reasons.

My objection to these 80 cell towers being installed was that the City planned to give away use of their utility poles to AT & T. I want the City to charge AT & T an installation fee plus a monthly rental. With that money the City should finish under-grounding all utilities in South Palo Alto.

Have you noticed that all utilities are now under-grounded in North Palo Alto but they never got around to completing the project in South Palo Alto? The City claimed they didn't have the money. If they have the money for North PA they should have the money for South PA!!!


Posted by radiation, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 30, 2011 at 1:11 pm

I would be happy if the city charged the cell phone company rental fees, and the cell phone companies passed that along to customers with Palo Alto addresses.


Posted by Northerner, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 30, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Sad Judy says Have you noticed that all utilities are now under-grounded in North Palo Alto but they never got around to completing the project in South Palo Alto? The City claimed they didn't have the money. If they have the money for North PA they should have the money for South PA!!!
Wrong, wrong, wrong. North Palo Alto is NOT done. Please check your facts before you start to cry.


Posted by not in my backyard, a resident of another community
on Mar 30, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Cell phone technology has advanced over the past 30 years such that IF this is all bad for humans, then between military and civilian use over those 30 years, people should be dropping dead from cell phone illnesses (whatever they may be - cancers, tumors, loss of hearing, damaged hair follicles - grey hair, ear hair growth). Seems that someone (CSC) would have seen a death rate trend and analyze the data. This cell phone tower is a good idea, only if it wasn't in Palo Alto's backyard. At this rate, the only way a cell phone tower is going to kill anyone is if it falls during an earthquake and an unfortunate soul is nearby.

As far as housing prices going down, why would they not go up? Would you not pay more for an added selling feature like: Cell phone coverage is excellent with 0% dropped calls 24/7 because there is a tower nearby. Also, the tower has WIFI antennas, which allow you to connect instantly to the web with no loss of connection 24/7.

Does anyone ever put down their Blackberry or IPhone because they are of getting cell phone sickness – whatever that may be? I bet not. So yes, change is good, though I too long for the days of no cell phones for different reasons, BUT they are here to stay. Acceptance is a virtue.


Posted by Show me the proof, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 30, 2011 at 6:25 pm

People that make claims of health risk and/or deceased property values need to provide proof of these claims as part of their appeal process. Otherwise they are engaging in cheap scare tactics and should be dismissed as not honest. We ned too fresh palo alto kicking and screaming into the 21st century despite the efforts of luddites and NIMBYists.


Posted by daniel, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 30, 2011 at 7:19 pm

We managed to survive just fine before cell phones contaminated our lives, made drivers much deadlier than ever and made being out in public unbearable because so many people are hopelessly addicted to them. As someone who hates cell phones and doesn't use them (no, I'm not a Ludite),I completely sympathize. The great André Previn doesn't own one and hopefully others will follow his lead.


Posted by Huh?, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 30, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Andre Previn is quite the composer and man about town (5 marriages so far), but I'm not sure he'd be my role model in communications technology.


Posted by daniel, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 31, 2011 at 6:58 am

But Previn is a testament to the fact you can be very creative and functional without a cell phone. Einstein, Steve Jobs(didn't have one when he founded Apple, John Maynard Keynes and many other trail blazers managed to do just fine without cell phones and so can we.


Posted by Ban cell phones, a resident of Stanford
on Mar 31, 2011 at 7:09 am

But, Daniel, the question is would those people have cell phones had they been available at the time. Listing people who were around when there were no cell phones is not a real statement of anything.


Posted by daniel, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 31, 2011 at 7:27 am

My guess is that some would and some wouldn't. A friend of mine is a senior software developer in a top Valley company who never had a cell phone and has no intention of ever getting one. My point? We can't ban them, but they are not necessary, therefore we shouldn't inconvenience anyone by allowing corporations to build towers.


Posted by Ban cell phones, a resident of Stanford
on Mar 31, 2011 at 8:07 am

"but they are not necessary"

Maybe not, but neither are regular phones. In fact if you go to third world countries you will see that cell phones are a blessing--none of these countries would ever get wired for landlines, people would not have phone service if it was not for cell phones--having cell phones allows people to connect and talk. Cell phones serve many useful purposes--too many to go into here. they are part of the world now

"therefore we shouldn't inconvenience anyone by allowing corporations to build towers."
If we follow that argument we should ban cars, electric polls and other things. I am sure some people are inconvenienced by them. You will always find people that are "inconvenienced" by something. When you live in a society, there has to be some kind of give and take--you cannot please everyone. And we should certainly not try to please someone who is trying to extort from the city by threatening us.


Posted by daniel, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 31, 2011 at 1:09 pm

No one ever suggested banning cell phones. However, since they are not vital, unlike emergency services(who are often needed now because of drivers with cell phones who pay scant attention to the road, for example, we should be very careful about inconveniencing residents, building ugly towers or erecting tacky antennas.


Posted by Ban cell phones, a resident of Stanford
on Mar 31, 2011 at 1:14 pm

"However, since they are not vital"
Repeating a factoid does not make it true.

"we should be very careful about inconveniencing residents, building ugly towers or erecting tacky antennas."
Who decides what is "ugly" and "tacky"? As I said everyone is inconvenienced by something.


Posted by Optik, a resident of Community Center
on Mar 31, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Why don't we skip all this old radio technology and take the next step: fiber to the phone?


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 31, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Fiber ain't portable, Bucky.


Posted by Wondering?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 3, 2011 at 8:32 am

> Steve Jobs(didn't have one when he founded Apple

Since that time, Steve has invented one of the most intriguing bit of technology to fill that gap in his own experience.

If given a map of palo alto, it might be interesting to see how many people could place an "X" near the cell towers currently located within the city?

76


Posted by me, a resident of another community
on Apr 3, 2011 at 3:22 pm

I gave up my landline because I couldn't see the point in paying for two numbers. But living on the bottom floor of a 4 story building, my reception sucks. I have to stand next to a window to talk. I would welcome a new tower and better service in my neighborhood.


Posted by Kickit-It-Up, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 3, 2011 at 6:27 pm


> cell phone reception sucks ..

Try looking into a cell phone "booster":
Web Link

This one is fairly inexpensive. Others seem to be in the $350-$450 range.


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