Just about everyone uses a cell phone these days, and keeping up with an increase in demand requires some way to transmit all of those calls. People acknowledge the need for cell-phone towers and antennas, and appreciate the service they provide. Just don’t try to put them near their neighborhoods. Or their children’s school.
That was the conundrum that lured dozens of residents to Tuesday’s meeting of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. Apprehension about the property values of homes that neighbor the antennas to the health risks they pose to children were all part of the discussion.
The company behind it is wireless company NextG Networks.
It submitted applications Aug. 5 for 39 “node” or antenna sites throughout the South Coast. An antenna a little taller than 2 feet would be placed at the top of an existing utility pole, and the cables needed for the project would be strung along the telephone wire or trenched underground.
The Federal Communications Act pre-empts the county from prohibiting the antennas and states that localities can’t “regulate the placement, construction and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of environmental effect of radio frequency emissions,” assuming they comply with the threshold deemed safe by the Federal Communications Commission.
According to staff reports, the county can influence the sites and design of the antennas, although there are limitations on that, too. If challenged by the county, however, the wireless company would have to prove a gap in service and that the proposed antennas would help close it.
The county’s telecommunications ordinance mentions public safety as a determining factor in deciding where to place the structures, but the federal law supersedes the ordinance.
The amount of radiation from electromagnetic frequencies — and, more important, how much is classified as harmful — is central to the health arguments against the antennas. Studies on the subject are contradictory at best; in the meantime, the federal thresholds stand.
One of the locations that came up repeatedly Tuesday was a proposed site adjacent to Montecito Union School, 385 San Ysidro Road. The antenna also would hover near Manning Park and the Montecito YMCA.
“We have a situation where corporations are now going to put radiation-emitting infrastructure into our community,” said John Abraham Powell, vice president of the Mountain Drive Community Association. The reason? According to Powell, it’s “so they can sell us something — something that we already have, which is cell-phone service.”
He added: “We don’t seem to have any say in the matter. We need an ordinance immediately to protect our children from something that has been shown to be a significant possible cancer risk.”
David Landecker, executive director of the Environmental Defense Center, told the supervisors that their powers extended beyond the legalities in the case to moral and political obligations to the populace. “You do have the power to ask applicants to listen to the people and public concerns,” he said.
NextG spokesman Patrick Ryan said Tuesday that the company has been in conversations with the county for years about this type of project. “This really shouldn’t come as a surprise,” he said, adding that application letters had been sent as early as 2004. “It’s been a process that’s been going on a very long time.”
Dr. Jerrold Bushberg, a UC Davis Medical School professor who frequently advises municipalities about radiation and was hired to make sure the company complies with FCC requirements, said the facilities NextG is proposing have 20 watts of output power, most of which would be directed toward the horizon with only a small percentage falling below the antennas.
Supervisor Salud Carbajal asked Bushberg whether electromagnetic fields were dangerous to people.
“At high enough exposures, yes,” Bushberg said. “But not at exposures associated with a facility like this. The federal guidelines believe that the public exposures standards are adequate to protect public health and safety.”
Supervisors expressed frustration that their hands are seemingly tied on the issue.
“At the heart of it is the fact that we really don’t yet accept or trust the FCC standards,” Supervisor Doreen Farr said. “We’re clearly the guinea pig generation for all of this.”
Supervisor Janet Wolf said: “It’s so interesting that they can’t be around scenic highways and they have to be a certain height, but we’re not supposed to talk about health issues.”
Since Tuesday’s presentation wasn’t an action item, the issue will come back before the board later, and the staff will bring forward more information.
Carbajal advised the staff to look at how other jurisdictions are handling the problem and to see what amendments to the current ordinance would foster public input.
Supervisor Joe Centeno mused about things that once were commonly held as safe, such as smoking, but now are proven harmful.
“Things evolve,” he said. “We learn that things we used to do, we ought not to be doing anymore because they’re harmful for us. I would suspect that in 10 years from now, we might conclude that what we’re doing is not a very smart thing. … We really don’t know. I’m confident this is not the last time we’re going to be hearing about this.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at email@example.com.