Jessica Doremus points to
proposed cell tower site on Arcata Bottom.
by HELEN SANDERSON and KEITH EASTHOUSE
ON ONE OF THE FEW BENDS IN predominantly straight and narrow stretch of Foster Road in the Arcata Bottom, a hand-painted sign nailed to a wooden pole warns drivers: "Slow down, children at play."
The message reflects not only a concern for traffic safety, but also a desire to preserve the slow pace inherent in the pastoral setting -- people feel secure here, and they want to preserve that security.
But posting a warning sign to drivers is one thing; staving off the demands of the wireless age is something else.
For more than a year, the open expanse of the Arcata Bottom has been eyed by the local cell phone industry as a prime location for transmission towers -- mostly because it would fill in a gap in coverage in north Arcata that cell phone users around here know all too well.
But the Bottom's attractiveness to the industry has provoked alarm and opposition from a group of about half a dozen Bottom residents who say cell towers, poles and their associated antennae would not mesh with the rural landscape, would reduce property values and could possibly pose a threat to people's health.
In an attempt to keep cell towers from spreading across the land west of Arcata, the group has called for a moratorium on cell tower approvals pending a county ordinance that would impose controls on the siting of the towers. (Presently such controls are almost nonexistent, which helps to explain how a cell phone tower was erected not long ago right in the middle of a Garberville neighborhood.) The city of Arcata -- which has no jurisdiction over the Bottom since it lies outside city limits -- has also called for a moratorium on cell tower construction until the cumulative impacts of multiple towers can be assessed.
So far, the Board of Supervisors has turned a deaf ear to the idea. However, county staff have put together an ordinance that will be made public at a meeting next week. While the details were unclear at press time, there is for the first time the promise of meaningful regulation of cell tower construction in Humboldt.
It may also be that pressure is easing on the Arcata Bottom, at least for the time being. A 160-foot transmission tower planned for the forested eastern edge of the Humboldt State University campus could be erected by January. That has already led one company, U.S. Cellular, to say that it may abandon its plan to build a 70-foot tower in the Bottom. Cal-North Cellular is also likely to use the HSU tower, which will be capable of stationing four cellular carriers.
But Cal-North is still pushing to build a 50-foot tower that would take the form of a pole at Moxon and Bay School roads. At the moment, that is ground zero in the local cell tower battle -- on Aug. 26, county supervisors will hear a challenge to the project mounted by Bottom residents and the city of Arcata.
Some residents fear that even if just one tower is erected in the Bottom, it will open the door to more in the future. "It isn't just about this one site," said Charlie Butterworth, an Arcata Bottom property owner. "We want to stop the sprawl of the cell towers in the Bottom before it starts."
A TOWER TOO LARGE
The cell tower debate began when U.S. Cellular applied to the county Planning Commission to erect a 150-foot tower in the Bottom area, on land owned by Sun Valley Floral Farms at the abandoned Simpson Mill site. Largely because of its size, the tower was immediately controversial: It would have been too close for comfort for some nearby residents and too ugly for others.
When the Planning Commission agreed that the tower's height made it a visual eyesore, the company scaled down its plans, calling instead for a 70-foot structure disguised as an antique water tank. It was that transmission facility that U.S. Cellular abandoned for the HSU tower.
The departure of U.S. Cellular from the Bottom is a bit of a mixed blessing, however. The company's original tower would have been big enough to handle multiple carriers. Without such a tower in the Bottom, more, smaller facilities may dot the rustic landscape.
How many? At one point, the county was estimating that nine to 15 new transmission sites would eventually be needed. With the advent of the HSU tower that number could drop to three. But given that there are six licensed cellular carriers in northern Humboldt, future tower proposals for the Bottom are a possibility, perhaps even a likelihood.
When plans fell through for co-location on the U.S. Cellular tower, Cal-North entered into a lease agreement with Robert and Bonnie Thomas, owners of a 29-acre parcel of agricultural land in the Bottom. The Thomas' agreed -- for an undisclosed amount -- to let Cal-North erect the 50-foot wooden-pole style cellular facility on their land, primarily used for cattle grazing.
The 50-foot pole is not likely to affect the health or visually displease the Thomas couple; they live in Bend, Ore. -- 350 miles from Arcata. But then again, they probably wouldn't have been opposed if they lived nearby either.
"It's almost like everything business oriented in Arcata is denied and fought," Bob Thomas said. "It's part of why we left."
Suzie Van Kirk has worked as a historic consultant for the past 30 years. The Sunny Brae resident believes that a proliferation of cellular antennae in the Arcata Bottom will impact the cultural landscape.
In its preservation guidelines, the U.S. Department of Cultural Resources defines a "historic vernacular landscape" as "a single property such as a farm or a collection of properties such as a district of historic farms along a river valley."
Van Kirk has argued that the Bottom area, with farmland stretching from Highway 101 to Humboldt Bay, is a historic vernacular landscape and deserves preservation. She has documented the history of the Arcata Bottom from the time European-American settlers took the land from the Wiyot, to the construction of dikes for transport and access in the late 1800s, to the advent of dairy farms. Many of the structures on these farms were built with old growth redwood and are unique, Van Kirk said.
"It's not simply a matter of aesthetics; the integrity of the landscape as a whole must be maintained. The area needs to be looked at as a collection of archeological, historical and natural features, and that hasn't been adequately addressed yet," she said.
For Butterworth, the Cal-North tower poses a more direct threat.
His property immediately adjacent to the Thomas' land includes rental units housing 23 people, seven of whom are children.There is also another dwelling, a vacant house, which he one day hopes to live in. That structure lies 430 feet from the proposed Cal-North site.
Butterworth planned to move from his current residence in Southern Humboldt into the Bottom with his wife and 6-year-old daughter. Things changed when he learned that Cal-North might be his neighbor. Butterworth believes that radiation from cell antennae is a health hazard, particularly to the mental development of children. He said that if the site were approved, he would recommend that his tenants with children look for another place to live.
Tom McMurray, a consultant who has done work for Cal-North for the past 12 years, did not dispute that the antennae on cell towers emit radiation. But he said that for someone to be harmed they would have to be standing immediately in front of an antennae for an extended period of time.
Butterworth has another concern -- that the tower will damage him financially. "It's going to fill the field behind my house and ruin my property values," he said. Cal-North officials say that property values throughout the area have risen, regardless of proximity to cell towers.
Joshua Kinch of Sweet Home Realty disagrees, saying that given Arcata's "green" reputation, properties in the community near cell towers could be particularly vulnerable to devaluation.
"I feel beyond a doubt that given the nature of the Arcata community, such depreciation will certainly be noticed. I base this opinion on the strong environmental/organic/holistic health-minded nature of this local community."
Cal-North's slogan is, "Coverage you can count on," and the bottom line for the company is that the Arcata Bottom will help them live up to their hype. The Moxon Lane transmitter will cover "shadow areas" that currently are not in the range of existing cell antennae due to the region's topography. These "dropout zones" are primarily located in the Valley West and Giuntoli Lane area of Arcata.
The blank spot exists despite the presence of a large tower in southeast McKinleyville, and it will continue to persist even after the HSU tower is erected, according to McMurray. The reason, he said, is a series of ridges coming off the hills in the area, which literally block the radio wave signals coming off the towers and coming from cell phones.
Ramona Fair, a Bottom resident, was skeptical about the blank spot and set out to disprove it. With the help of three others, Fair borrowed four cell phones, each one with a different service provider -- U.S Cellular, Sprint, Cal-North and Edge. She then drove to 10 different sites in the Bottom and Valley West, and made phone calls to a technician in Trinidad, who recorded the conversations. The calls came through loud and clear.
"People [in the Arcata Bottom] shouldn't be put in danger so rich people up on the hill can call home from the grocery store to ask what kind of pasta sauce they should buy," Fair said.
Despite opposition from people like Fair, the county Planning Commission has now voted twice to approve Cal-North's application -- once against the recommendation of its staff, which argued that the tower would be inconsistent with the rural character of the Bottom.
TURNING TO AN OUTSIDER
Dismayed by the Commission's stand, Arcata Bottom residents brought in an outsider with experience in fighting cell towers, Susan Clarke, a public health researcher with the Institute of Media Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In June, Clarke spoke at the Northcoast Environmental Center concerning the health effects of radio frequency radiation and the ways in which the public can halt the construction of wireless facilities.
The meeting, which was attended by close to 30 people on June 9, lasted for approximately two hours. Clarke, who is not a scientist, presented an array of research, which she said clearly demonstrates that cell towers affect human health.
Members of the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission were invited to attend Clarke's presentation, but none showed.
At the Supervisors' meeting the next day, Clarke made a 20-minute presentation that outlined the health hazards posed by cell towers. Additionally, she urged the supervisors to issue a moratorium so that there would be adequate time to complete an ordinance regulating cell tower construction. Approving cell tower applications without such an ordinance, Clarke said, would be irresponsible.
Third District Supervisor John Woolley -- whose district includes the Bottom -- spoke in favor of an ordinance to regulate cell towers. But he stopped short of endorsing a moratorium, and no one else on the board argued for going that route.
What that meant was that the county Planning Commission -- criticized by Bottom residents and the city of Arcata for being a rubber stamp for the cell phone industry -- would continue to make recommendations to the board on cell tower proposals. To what extent the commission will be constrained by the proposed ordinance that is on the verge of being made public remains to be seen.
To Arcata Mayor Bob Ornelas, it's a no-brainer -- health risks should be examined before giving cellular companies the go-ahead. Ignoring potential health hazards, he said, shows that the "big boy clique" successfully puts the screws on county officials.
But county officials say their hands are tied: There are federally mandated laws they must adhere to. With the passage of the Telecommunications Act in 1996, Congress ruled that local officials cannot regulate the placement, construction or modification of cellular facilities on the basis of environmental or health effects of radiation.
Ann Lindsay, Humboldt County's Director of Public Health, thinks that's wrong. While Lindsay said she is not convinced there is hardcore evidence that cell towers cause harm, she thinks local jurisdictions should be involved in assessing health effects. She said Humboldt County officials should periodically reveiw studies on the health impacts of cellular transmission towers as they come out and act accordingly. Times change, Lindsay added, noting that she remembers the days when you could get your foot X-rayed in the shoe store -- something that's considered dangerous today.
A LITIGIOUS INDUSTRY
How hard Arcata and the Bottom residents will push for stringent regulation of cell tower construction is uncertain, although Butterworth said he would file a lawsuit if the Cal-North tower is approved by the supervisors.
What is certain is that the power of the cell phone industry is formidable. With an estimated 150 million people in the United States owning mobile phones, a number that continues to grow, companies say they need to keep up with the demand of clients, prompting more construction of cell towers.
In fact, a Cal-North antenna sits atop the Humboldt County Courthouse -- the building where all the decisions have been made regarding cell tower construction in the county.
Getting in the way of such construction can prove costly for municipalities.
In May, San Diego County adopted a wireless zoning ordinance that imposed stricter guidelines and heavier fees for cell tower siting, particularly near residential areas.
Less than three months later, two cell phone companies, Cingular and Sprint, filed separate lawsuits with the same fundamental allegation: The ordinance excessively regulates their ability to build cell towers. As a result, the companies say, San Diego County is directly interfering with their ability to conduct business -- something that is protected by Congress. The companies are seeking monetary damages from the county and its five supervisors.
The legal battle is shaping up as a test case -- many communities in California are awaiting the outcome to see just how far the limits can be pushed on wireless companies.
Humboldt, of course, is on the verge of releasing a draft of its ordinance, which Planning Department Director Kirk Girard said would enhance already existing guidelines. Girard said the county looked to the San Diego ordinance, as well as one in Monterey, as models.
A San Francisco consulting firm, Dyett and Bhatia, agreed to draft Humboldt's ordinance in August 2001, at a price that the Planning Department says is close to $18,000. The firm finished the draft two months ago and the Planning Department and county staff have been making further additions since that time.
The draft ordinance will be unveiled at least to some extent at an Aug. 18 public workshop in Eureka.
Bottom residents are anticipating that the ordinance will be discussed at length, and that citizens will be given the opportunity to suggest additions and changes. But Kirk Gothier with the Planning Department said that the public would be given an "idea" of what is on the ordinance, not a full-blown, point-by-point description of the document.
Like the city of Arcata, the Bottom folks want the ordinance to require that the impact of all transmission sites be assessed cumulatively, rather than on a piecemeal basis. The residents also want monitoring of individual sites by an independent third party.
The confusion as to how much information the public will be privy to is par for the course in the cell tower debate.
For instance, citizens who appeared at the June 19 Planning Commission meeting were told that they could not talk about matters that had previously been submitted into the record. At another meeting, citizens were told that they could not address the health hazards of cell tower emissions.
When it comes to cell towers, the crux of the matter is how close can they be located to residences and other occupied buildings without posing a hazard.
The Federal Communications Commission has addressed this issue by developing "maximum permissible exposure levels" for the radio frequency (RF) radiation that is emitted by the towers. While the details are quite complex, the concept is quite simple: Proximity is everything.
As the FCC says: "As with all forms of electromagnetic energy, the power density from a cellular transmitter rapidly decreases as one moves away from the antenna. Consequently, normal ground-level exposure is much less than the exposure that might be encountered if one were very close to the antenna and its main transmitted beam."
It is because that main beam goes outward rather than downward that transmitters can be located on top of buildings.
John E. Moulder, a professor of radiation oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, put it this way: "It is the antennae that people need to keep their distance from, not the towers that hold the antennae."
The RF radiation from the antennae is harmful simply because it is a form of heat. "If exposure is sufficiently intense, RF radiation can cause biological effects," Moulder said. "Possible injuries include cataracts, skin burns, deep burns, heat exhaustion and heat stroke."
While everyone agrees that there are negative "thermal effects" from RF radiation, dangerous levels extend out only a very short distance from the antennae. Lower levels of RF radiation reach out much farther, so far that unless a transmission tower is located in a remote area, people will get exposed. The entire debate on the safety of cell towers hinges on the question of whether these low levels of exposure are great enough to cause health problems.
The short answer is that no one knows because the matter hasn't been sufficiently studied.
In a 1999 letter to the FCC, Robert Brenner, Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, noted a shortcoming in the FCC's safety guidelines for cell tower emissions -- they do not take into account the low-level, persistent exposure to RF radiation that people who live near cell towers are exposed to.
"The FCC guidelines expressly take into account thermal effects of RF energy, but do not directly address postulated non-thermal effects, such as those due to chronic exposure. That is the case largely because of the paucity of scientific research on chronic, non-thermal health effects.
"A few studies report that at non-thermal levels long-term exposure to RF energy may have biological consequences," Brenner added. But he said there simply hasn't been enough scientific documentation of health problems to conclude that there is a hazard.
Getting back to the Cal-North pole slated for the Bottom, it will have three panels that provide 360 degrees of coverage, with each panel emitting 100 watts. This emission is approximately 2.4 percent of the allowable FCC standards -- which sounds quite safe.
Clarke disagreed, saying that negative health effects have been shown to occur at levels even lower than 2 percent of permissible levels, including sleeplessness, irritability, headaches and memory loss.
Some scientists, such as Moulder, dismiss concerns about possible health risks from cell tower emissions, saying that cell phones themselves pose more of a risk since they direct much of their radio frequency energy directly into the ear canal.
The science remains controversial and inconclusive. Consequently, industry advocates such as McMurray can reasonably argue that imposing strict controls on cell towers is unfair. At the same time, citizen activists like Jessica Doremus, a Bottom resident who has spearheaded much of the opposition, can reasonably argue that not imposing strict controls is unwise.
Their differing value systems, of course, are reflected in what they choose to emphasize. McMurray, for example, pointed to the social value of cell phones, citing data from the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association that says that 156,000 emergency calls are made daily, 108 calls per minute, nationwide. Cell phone calls, McMurray said, save lives every day. (They also make it possible to contact loved ones in dire emergencies; who can forget the good-bye calls to loved ones made by people trapped inside the World Trade Center on Sept. 11?)
But to Doremus, the fact that the cell phone industry is exposing people living near cell phone towers to RF radiation against their will amounts to an unacceptable violation.
"Radio frequency radiation is something that is going beyond the property line; it's involuntary exposure that's being emitted 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Doremus said.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.