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Cell Towers in Residential Areas

Written by Stuart Lieberman on Wednesday, 02 August 2006 7:00 pm
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It's almost funny to me. Universally, people want better cell phone coverage. They want cell phones that work well and don't drop calls. And they want consistency.

Universally as well, communities throughout the United States don't want cell towers in their neighborhoods. The cell towers are ugly, and may very well diminish property value. After all, if you had a choice, would you move next to one?

Public rejection of towers is more than a question of cosmetics. There are health fears as well. Yes, the federal government has concluded that these towers are safe. But, haven't we heard that many times before in cases where later that has turned out to be incorrect?

So what are we supposed to do about this? We want good service, but we don't want cell towers. Often, the truth is that if you want better service, you may need a new cell tower.

Cell towers have a finite ability to handle cell phone calls. In order for an antenna to work properly, it must actually "see" the cell phone. There must be a linear connection between the cell phone and cell antenna. If they do not see each other, the call will not be successful.

This means that a cell tower must be obstruction free. It needs to be above tree lines. It can't be obstructed by a large number of buildings.

In turn, that means that the cell tower has to be visible. And again, that's where the problem lies. Cell towers are simply ugly. They are tall, massive pieces of steel that fit well in industrial areas, but not so well in residential areas. Especially non-urban residential areas.

In response, someone came up with the idea of trying to make cell towers look like trees. I've never seen a cell tower that has fooled me. Very often the bottom part of the cell tower looks like steel. It's only the top part that has branches. Which means that at best, the camouflaged tower looks like a dying tree. And that's not a pretty sight by any definition.

Federal law has done a lot in terms of shoving these towers down our throats. While land-use boards and municipalities have some level of discretion in deciding where to permit these towers, a lot of discretion has been taken away by federal law. If it looks like a municipal law is too restrictive, the cell phone company may be able to go to court and may be able to invalidate the local land-use ordinance which is precluding the erection of the towers.

Furthermore, the experts retained by the cell companies will always correctly testify that health effects are pre-empted by federal law. In other words, a municipality cannot deny a tower application based on health issues.

However, I believe that there are recent studies that have been conducted in Europe that have placed into legitimate question the health and safety effects of both cell phones and cell towers. Personally, I am not reassured, just because the federal government is taking this issue off the table. Indeed, I am even more suspicious than I otherwise would have been by the fact that the federal government has taken this issue off the table.

This is what I recommend.

First, I believe that the carriers need to be more honest about health and safety issues. They need to stop pretending that this is a completely understood area of science. Cell phones have only been around for several decades. I don't believe that anybody really knows what the long-term effects are of these cell phones or cell towers -- if any.

Heaven forbid, if 20 years from now we find out that cell phones and cell antennas are more dangerous than some government regulators have suggested, what are the cell companies going to do? Do you honestly believe that they will voluntarily remove them from the our neighborhoods? You and I both know the answer to that question.

Second, I recommend that the few remaining cell companies search for antenna locations together. They should designate one company representative as a spokesperson.

Third, that spokesperson should engage in good faith negotiations with a municipality prior to making any land use application. And, the municipality should engage in good faith discussions as well. While many municipalities may not want a tower anywhere, that probably will not be a good starting point for discussion. If there are legitimate coverage gaps, a tower will be installed. Its just a question of where.

Some locations will always be less offensive than others. Meetings before applications are made will provide both sides with an opportunity to try to accommodate each other's legitimate interests, which means that carriers will have to forego their "best" locations sometimes in order to meet local needs.

The public should also be involved in these pre-application hearings. This needs to be a process where the sides work together from the inception. An adversarial atmosphere will not benefit anyone. And to the extent that this process is inconsistent with state or federal laws, the laws need to be changed.

Cell companies need to be sensitive to the real interests of the municipal residents. That means avoiding residential areas and schools as much as possible. In fact, industrial areas are generally preferable from both an aesthetic and, dare I say, heath concern basis. Once again, municipalities need to be realistic and fair about this process as well.

While conflict will in some cases not be avoidable, the business of locating cell towers needs to become more of a team approach. For many reasons, this will make everyone a lot happier.

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