Not in Their Backyard, Either

The clash between Lookout Mountain residents and broadcasters is a minor scuffle compared to an incident in Usfiya, a village in Israel near Haifa. On March 15, the Jerusalem Post reported that eighteen people, ten of them police officers, were hurt there during a riot provoked by anger over cell-phone antennas belonging to Cellcom and Motorola.

Locals, who claim that more than a hundred residents are suffering from cancer (and blame electromagnetic emissions for causing it), attempted to rip the antennas to pieces, eventually setting them ablaze. When repairmen arrived to fix the problems, they were attacked.

In this country, community organizations wishing to deny companies the chance to site cell-phone antennas face what's perhaps an even more formidable adversary: the U.S. government. A little-known provision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (which largely deregulated the broadcasting industry, spawning the growth of mega-corporations such as Clear Channel, a major player in the Denver radio market) states that localities can't use health concerns to reject cell towers if the equipment is operating within radio frequencies guidelines established by the FCC.

Vermont senators Patrick Leahy and James Jeffords are co-sponsoring a law to repeal this portion of the act, but thanks to the vigorous campaigning of broadcast-industry lobbyists, it's going nowhere fast. For that reason, groups that want to have some control over where cell towers wind up, including ones in the Massachusetts burgs of Newton and Weston, are turning to local zoning regulations, just as CARE has. Sometimes these tactics work; sometimes they don't.

Radio- and TV-tower fights are not as common, and victory for those opposing broadcasters is rarer still. Take the folks of the Healy Heights neighborhood in a hilly suburb of Portland, Oregon, called Council Crest. By the late '80s, the community was already the home of a sizable antenna farm (locals called it an "electric jungle") spewing highly concentrated RF emissions, so when rock station KGON proposed a new tower that, at 607 feet, was almost twice as tall as any on the site, neighborhood groups mobilized.

Pointing to a study by a researcher at Oregon Health Sciences University that purported to show an elevated incidence of leukemia near the Healy Heights site and others like it in the area, activists beseeched local authorities and the FCC to intervene. But representatives of KGON, who assured government types that the new antenna would actually lower RF levels on the ground, eventually prevailed.

The tower was built, and after it became operational, consultant Richard A. Tell, who'd been hired to conduct RF field studies prior to its construction, returned to do further measurements. "The results were just as the broadcasters predicted," he says. "Because the antennas that had previously been close to the ground were higher up, the ambient field levels dropped noticeably. The people there had all kinds of worries about it, but it operated precisely the way we thought it would, and I haven't heard any hue and cry from them since."

Knut Eie, who's president of both the Southwest Hills Residential League and the Healy Heights Neighborhood Association, which fought the KGON tower, confirms that locals are no longer as up in arms as they were ten years ago. He says moving the antennas higher up on the tower helped reduce some of the weird effects of the emissions, including garage doors that would open and close on their own and scrambled TV reception, and caused health fears to diminish.

Although the hoped-for consolidation of other antennas onto KGON's stick only went so far -- there remains a tangle of devices Eie calls "uglier than sin" -- prices for the million-dollar homes in the area have remained steady even as towers have continued to sprout in adjacent locations.

Jim Ivancie, president of the Sylvan-Highlands Neighborhood Association, also in the southwest hills of Portland, wasn't too concerned about his area's newest resident, a tower belonging to broadcaster KOIN, until workers wrapped the structure next to it in "some kind of strange silver material." Laughing, he says, "If they have to do that to their building, it makes you wonder if we should be doing that to ours."

Laurie Downey isn't nearly so amused by what's about happening in Baldwin, Maine, a rural community of 1,300 souls. The president of Community Advocates for Saddleback Hills, or CASH (an acronym that she says "has proven to be unfortunate"), Downey is spearheading the drive against WMTW, an ABC affiliate that wants to move its tower from New Hampshire's Mount Washington, where it's been for decades, to Baldwin in order to improve coverage in a rapidly growing area. The projected tower would be a whopper -- 1,667 feet -- and since WMTW would like to co-locate a variety of other radio and television antennas on it, locals like Downey are afraid of a staggering rise in emissions that they already view as too high (another tower, all 1,300 feet of it, is in place just two miles from the WMTW site). "This is a very beautiful, very scenic area," Downey says. "Enough is enough."

Apparently not.

Baldwin city officials were thrilled by the prospect of having a potential moneymaker like WMTW in town and approved the tower over the strenuous objections of CASH in 1998. Since then, it's been one legal maneuver after another, with Downey and her group getting stomped at every turn. CASH lost before the Baldwin Appeals Board, and in January, the group's supporters were turned down when they asked for the case to be heard at the superior court level.

That leaves the Maine supreme court, with which CASH has just filed a series of briefs. If the court takes the case, Downey is hopeful that "we'll get a more objective hearing of some of the broader issues than we have here." But she won't be shocked if they're shown the door.

"It seems to me that we ought to be conservative in terms of public exposure to these emissions," she says. "But the attitude I keep getting from the broadcasters is, 'We'll consider if there's harm being done if you can show us the body.'"

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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