Neighborhood Fight: Proposed Cell Tower Raises Concerns in Bonnie Brae

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Want to make some extra cash and get better cell service? Maybe one of your favorite cell providers can install a tower in your back yard — just what the Kirk of Bonnie Brae church, at 1201 South Steele Street, is considering, much to the dismay of many Cory-Merrill neighborhood residents.

Marti and Andrew Freeman moved into their house behind the church in 2012. Marti first got word of a proposed Verizon Wireless telecommunications tower from the church's pastor last fall; with three young children, the couple had some immediate concerns about the fifty-foot "stealth" tower. In October, Verizon and the church held an informational meeting for neighbors — and that's when other residents began to rally against the plan.

“They are still trying to figure out the sentiment from the neighborhood,” notes Marti, who is president of the Cory-Merrill Neighborhood Association. “And I do respect the pastor there," she adds about the Kirk's Selena Wright. "I think she’s a really great person, and I think their intention is to be honest and transparent and get feedback from the neighborhood. At the same time, once they have gotten this feedback, they have failed to respond to what’s actually happening.”

One neighbor created campaign signs opposing the tower; they can now be seen on many lawns around the church. Another Cory-Merrill resident — who does not live near the project — started going door to door in November to raise awareness, and over 100 people have signed a protest petition on Change.org.

Degrading property value, noise from cooling fans and generators, maintenance vehicles parked in the alley, and health and safety issues are all concerns, says Andrew Freeman, a physician. The tower could catch fire, he adds, or fall and damage some of the surrounding houses, block Steele or take down power lines on the way to crashing into the back yard where their kids play. And the church rents out space for Steele Street Pre-School, whose entrance is just a few feet away from where the tower would be.

“There’s no conclusive data either way that it’s safe or it’s not safe, but there’s enough of a concern raised in the literature that there could be health effects, and they could be long-term health effects,” Freeman says. According to the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, however, neither state nor local governments can deny a permit or modify a telecommunications tower based on environmental effects of radio frequency emissions.

According to site plans, Verizon Wireless will lease an eight foot by eight foot slab for the proposed “stealth tower”— a thirty-inch cylinder reaching up fifty feet, with antenna groups inside. It comes with a seven-foot-tall electrical box by the alley that will have additional instruments, lights, caution signage and a diesel generator for back-up power.

The church doesn’t have to do request any re-zoning for this commercial land use: Although Denver’s zoning code does encourage that these towers be installed outside of residential neighborhoods, it allows them as long as they blend in and adhere to certain safety standards.

“As to the appropriateness of a fifty-foot communications tower in a residential district, this ordinance seems to me to indicate not,” says Paul Kashmann, the area’s city council council rep.

When Kashmann asked a Verizon representative to point out a similar tower in the area, he was directed to one by South Ogden Street and I-25 that is thinner and looks much shorter than forty feet.

“As far as the investigation I’ve been able to do so far, the science is not at a point where it puts me 100 percent comfortable by any means with having a cell tower in a residential neighborhood," Kashmann says. "I think I’m tempted to err on the side of caution and ask them to look for a more appropriate location."

Nothing has been finalized: The plan must be reviewed by the city, and the Kirk is still measuring neighborhood sentiment. “We value our place in the community and strive to be good neighbors to all,” Pastor Wright wrote in an e-mail to Westword. “We are in the process of actively discerning how to balance our desire to be good neighbors with the potential to better serve the marginalized among us in keeping with our faith commitments.”  

And Verizon vows to work with neighborhoods as it continues to cater to rapidly increasing demand for wireless voice and data service, which has been increasing by 25 to 50 percent a year according to Meagan Dorsch, a spokeswoman for the company. Dorsch says Verizon seeks out sites for its towers and will also consider a landlord’s request for a survey.

“We look forward to working with the community to find a solution that will meet local needs,” Dorsch noted in an e-mail.

For her part, Marti Freeman says the Archdiocese of Denver — which is located at 1300 South Steele, just across from the Kirk — denied a similar request from Verizon a year ago. But she also acknowledges that her area is a dead zone.

“Good cell-phone service would be nice, but not at the risk of all the other things we are concerned about," Marti says. "I would feel just as strongly fighting for other neighbors in this situation. It just happens to be next to us, and I think other neighborhoods will be fighting these battles unless the zoning changes."

The Kirk of Bonnie Brae Church is holding a meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, February 11, at 1201 South Steele Street. Verizon will have an expert there to discuss the proposed telecommunications tower.

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