The Lo Down on Cell Towers, Neighborhood Values, and the Secretive Telecoms

From cell towers to moratorium, to new cell tower ordinance to goofy fake tree towers

You Can’t Fight City Hall?

Sometimes David is Patricia and Goliath is the FCC and AT&T. If anyone has been keeping an eye on rare articles printed in the Spokane (WA) daily and weekly, the reader might have seen the news about one neighborhood – the Grandview-Thorpe – losing the fight to stop Verizon Wireless from building a cell tower in their community, while another neighborhood group –Cliff-Cannon – helped put monkey wrenches (tiny ones) into the gear work of the cell phone-telecommunication engines.

Spokane City council members balked, city planners looked for cover, and the city attorney tried without much success to seek legal loophole redress to break the juggernaut that is the Federal Communications Commission holding sway over cities and states in stopping us from keeping both unsightly and possibly dangerous 120-200 foot stand-alone towers from being built.

Perseverance, legal eagles and timing are factors in one local woman’s fight to keep the T-Mobiles, Verizons, Comcasts, and AT&Ts at bay.

“I woke up this morning, looking into the mirror, and realized that it’s taken twenty-two months, and it’s almost done,” said Patricia Hansen, resident of the Cliff-Cannon neighborhood who has fought tooth and nail against the big boys with AT&T to keep a 60-foot tower from being built near her 14th and Lincoln home.

For Igna Laurent, Gonzaga law professor originally from Cleveland, the lost fight to stop the Grandview-Thorpe tower left a bitter taste in her mouth and other neighbors’ mouths.

“Many of us wrote letters, created fliers and information packets and walked the neighborhood and knocked on a lot of doors,” Laurent told me. She said there were no follow-ups from the city, and no chance to contest the decision to go ahead with a 60-foot metal mono-pole that is supposed to resemble a giant tree a la Frankenstein, but indeed feels, tastes and looks like a tower. “I am a big process person, and this has been frustrating to me because we were never notified and missed windows for an appeal.”

For Hansen, who knows all the ins and outs of this fight, it was a simple “since the people didn’t write down in their letters to city wonks ‘please follow up and contact us,’ they were not notified. Imagine that.”

The Feds Make Up the Rules as Telecommunications Industry Grows

What’s been in play for Spokane and hundreds of other cities is the FCC and the industry friendly Telecommunications Act. For Jake Brooks, one lawyer working on the city ordinance that was heard by the Spokane Plan Commission October 14, just getting a cell phone carrier to follow a process and meeting community standards is a big lift.

Brooks, Hansen and others now ensconced in the radio frequency arena do not see many ways to tackle an industry that has been writing our laws and regulations for decades. Proving AT&T, for example, has looked at all existing structures and considered all other more stealth technologies is tough enough. Hansen and Brooks see a bigger problem: When a carrier says there is a “gap” in coverage and that more signal strength needs to be engineered, it’s difficult to get objective radio frequency engineers to study, let alone challenge those assertions.

In the end, it’s all down to Telecommunications giants citing proprietary, domain shields, hence the one-sided battle. Hansen and others consider it almost impossible to get an inside look at what Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T are really looking at in terms of coverage gaps and future demands.

The city hemmed and hawed about getting sued if an emergency moratorium, albeit temporary, were to be put in place, but the council voted for one, in March 2015. The six-month proviso was extended once during the process, and $30,000 from the city’s coffers have been ponied up to hire a Denver consultant to help meet with stakeholder groups and draft up an ordinance.

Battles Won … One Citizen at a Time

This is a citywide battle, affecting all the neighborhoods, and it’s turned into a one-woman phalanx against some retrograde and fearful characters on all ends of the issue. The proposed tower in Hansen’s neighborhood, near Bennidito’s Pizza, was bandied about for months. Because she felt there was no support to even participate in the process as a citizen, she took it upon herself to hire David Brickline, attorney at law.

Hansen calls it the “little bluebird call” that started the snowball rolling: “I got a phone message telling me there’s something I need to see. Somebody at city hall [the bluebird] left the message. I asked the person to forward the documents, but they wanted no paper trail. An envelope was dropped off at my address.”

Bad press is good for fights like these at the citizen level, Patricia reiterated. American Tower Corporation is the tower construction outfit in question, and AT&T requested another pathway to shunt the negative press. The emergency moratorium then was proposed.

For the 26-year-old Jake Brooks, who hails from Portland, the so-called battle has had its positives. The entire unfolding of Hansen first hiring Brickline’s firm then onward with the stakeholder meetings and discussions with each council member, including outgoing Mike Allen and Jon Snyder, then a moratorium and then new proposed ordinance, Jake sees hope. No matter how powerful large corporations are as they flaunt the unfair tools the FCC has gifted them – notably this a very industry-friendly overarching law – communities can still get a dog in the fight.

“But the Telecommunications Act specifically preserves the rights of local governments to make decisions regarding the placement and construction of cell phone towers, and local governments have a very important role in the process,” Brooks said. “It is vitally important that community members let their voice be heard to their local elected representatives. The process of creating a new cell tower ordinance in Spokane has shown how powerful a community’s voice can be. A federal agency in Washington does not necessarily understand our community’s needs, but our local government representatives certainly do.”

I talked with Kirk Wine, a lawyer practicing on the Westside in Issaquah and Kenmore (WA state). He helped shape the country’s first cell tower moratorium in Medina, California, a town of 3,000. That was 1996, and even 20 years ago the FCC allowed for extensive expansion of cell phone tower construction with no oversight from municipalities or citizens groups. Each couple of years, the FCC has furthered the reach of Telecoms to hold sway over a community’s rights and wishes.

“All the cities and counties in this country rely on the industry to get their information on the technologies,” Wine said. “It’s a stacked deck against citizens and municipalities.” The electrical engineers with radio frequency expertise are not in most cities and a majority are paid by the Telecommunications industry. In addition, Wine points out most communities do not have the money to handle a lawsuit or to hire experts to stand down the industry when the corporations cite the technical necessity for more towers, bigger ones and their desired locations.

Cell phone arrays in church spires, on water towers, and this new node stealth technology, all of that is available to the industry, but both Wine and Brooks say it’s a matter of spending a bit more for that design technology. Wine was quick to point out that stopping cell phone towers in neighborhoods is not a NIMBY issue – not in my backyard. It affects all communities since radio waves cross boundaries and more towers are being built to expand capacity. “We really don’t know what those radio frequencies’ effect are on humans. We are just taking our chances because we want our cell phones,” he said.

Smart Phone Politics

Hansen made it clear that you can’t fight cell phone towers based on potential negative health effects, or the effects on the environment, nor the negative impact on property values.

Patricia Hansen is five foot two and 105 pounds sopping wet, she quips, but this fight she is taking to the bitter end. “When that bluebird sent me the documents, I took them to the neighborhood council.” Hansen heard the same rhetoric we all hear from most citizens – “You can’t fight the feds, AT&T is too powerful, and our city planners and elected representatives are too averse to appearing unfriendly to business.”

For Hansen and those active in their neighborhoods, the entire process of getting things done or even having an item placed on the radar of city and county bureaus is Byzantine and antithetical to representative government. Unless that government is there to protect the interests of a very small minority – a corporation – and not those of the majority – the citizens.

Speaking with Patricia, I know as a seasoned journalist how embedded she is in process and all the inner guts of local government, whether it works or not. There are so many levels as to to how to get the legal, planning, legislative and business interests of a city together on the same page. While speaking with Hansen, I heard plenty of off-the-record commentary on which players and stakeholders in the game either dropped the ball, failed to understand due process or just outright got tangled up in the “matrix” of bureaucratic hell.

This new ordinance is shaped by a hierarchy of alternative possibilities of which includes as a number one default of using city property – lots, buildings/structures and parks – as first choice for acceptable locations for cell phone arrays or towers. The city in turn would get money for rental fees from the telecoms. Patricia Hansen, Kirk Wine and Jake Brooks see distributive antenna systems as a win-win solution: this DAS technology cuts down on monolithic 120 foot towers, reduces the visual clutter and even has a positive effect on property values. This DAS and nodes system, of course, costs more up front than a towering lattice work of metal beams and crossbeams.

Just look at your Smartphone, at all those fancy apps, those Netflix downloads and instantaneous global messaging and video gaming all in the palm of your hand. More and more data is needed to run all that clutter, and that means more radio signal systems are necessary for that leap in digital next generation “stuff.”

Just What’s Going On with those EMFs?

No one wants dropped calls, so the sacrifice to the visual landscape has been made, sort of a Faustian bargain, too, when one considers that the medical research jury is not out on the negative – cancer causing – effects of cell phone tower emissions.

In researching this article, I reached out to three Spokane council members and got no response to my request for some comments. It’s clear that in a world where more and more people are defined by their limited view in their respected silos and a world dependent upon the very rarefied and non-transparent word of scientists, technologists and business tycoons and legal gatekeepers, we have to depend on battlers like Patricia Hansen, Erin Brockovich or Karen Silkwood to fight industry.

A Brazilian study along with others from Austria and San Francisco point to cell phone tower EMFs implicated in a large number of cancer deaths. More and more organizations and dozens more studies support the conclusions of recent Brazilian research focusing on Brazil’s third largest city, Belo Horizonte. In fact, The International Association for Research on Cancer (IARC) is on record stating radio frequency radiation, especially the radiation emanating from cell towers, is a possible carcinogen. Additionally, the BioInitiative 2012 Report, which was written by a group of leading international scientists, has issued a clear health warning against exposure to EMFs. This includes cell phone towers.

You won’t get anyone on the record in Spokane positing the negative effects of tower emissions, but a so-called democracy of, for and by the people where we elect folks to protect the public good, will, safety and health should be more inquisitive and flexible in its collective understanding of synergistic effects of “things” on both the individual and the collective.

Genetic mutations, memory disruptions, hindered learning, insomnia, ADD, brain disorders, dementia, infertility, heart complications, and hormonal imbalances, all cited as possible side effects of EMFs. Unimaginable to hear our city’s elected officials even cracking the books on these possible negatives of EMF exposure.

Footing the Bill to the Tune of Fourteen Thousand Bucks

The fight for folks like Patricia Hansen comes with a price – personal time, energy, emotions and money. This battle line affects 20 neighborhoods, and the lawyers don’t come for free, and so far, that $15,000 bill has been whittled down to barely under $14K. It’s on Hansen’s tab, someone who has been doing educational consulting for Native American tribes for many years. Hansen said folks thought the bill was being paid by Mike Allen, by the city, or by some other entity, she laughs.

“Do I regret doing this? Not for a moment,” she enthusiastically stated. She’s not happy that so many neighborhood councils are misinformed about how the city works and who pays for these causes. Sure, property owners like the California landlord of the piece of land near Patricia’s house benefit financially for a cell tower rental – $600 to $5000 a month landowners get from the telecoms.

The 57-year-old Hansen doesn’t deny the benefits of her cell phone and connection to the world, but there are less intrusive and ugly ways to do this “connectivity thing.”

Even as the cell phone ordinance was rolled out, Patricia was tinkering with it, following up with Jon Snyder and the city attorney James Richman to put back into the law historical preservation caveats to protect historically and culturally significant features of the city.

While a Kickstarter to raise money for the legal fees she’s on the spot for is possible, the idea of having a neighborhood ombudsman designated for Spokane is both practical and personal: “I wouldn’t mind having that job.” Too many people think their neighborhood concerns are protected and advanced by city reps. “We need an entity through which neighborhoods can get the things they want done. Our city representatives are powerless.”

  • This article first appeared in Spokane Living Magazine, Dec. 2015 issue.
  • Paul Kirk Haeder has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. A forthcoming book (Dec. 15, 2016), Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber, looks at 10 years of his writing at Dissident Voice, and before, to bring defiance to the world that is now lobotomizing at a rate never before seen in history. Read his autobiography, weekly chapter installments, at LA Progressive. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.