When Meg Rubinstein bought a home three years ago in Greenbriar Falls, an upscale 55-plus community in Tinton Falls, N.J., a big selling point of the area was its beauty. She lives on a corner, next to woods, and often sees wildlife from her window. This summer, however, Rubinstein learned that T-Mobile Northeast hoped to erect a 120-foot cell tower in a church yard across the street from her. She is not happy about the news.
"Cellphone towers are industrial structures and need to be confined to commercial or industrial properties and not pollute neighborhood communities," she said. Rubinstein fears that not only will the tower be an eyesore, it will decimate her property value. So she and others who live near the church are attending the town zoning board meetings in an attempt to stop construction of the tower. Some of them have hired a lawyer.
A cellphone tower may be coming to your community soon, too, if it hasn't already. According to CTIA — The Wireless Association, a nonprofit that represents wireless companies, there are more than 251,000 cell sites in the United States, an increase of almost 5,000 sites over the past year. Thanks to the proliferation of cellphones and other wireless devices, wireless providers need to increase wireless broadband and data network capacity to satisfy their current customers and to attract new ones. As a result, they are stepping up efforts to add more sites.
Residents aren't shy
When word gets around that a tower may be moving into a neighborhood, residents opposed to the idea are not shy about speaking up. The federal government prohibits towns from restricting cellphone towers on health grounds, yet residents continually cite health fears. While many experts say that the radio frequency waves emitted by the towers pose no danger — the towers are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission — people who don't agree say it is too soon to know the long-term effects.
In Altadena, Calif., natural health educator and radio host Revvell Revati, 61, was part of a group that opposed the construction of a cell tower on nearby church property two years ago. "It would have been right across the street from me. I was upset," she said. Altadena residents succeeded in thwarting the effort, however. "The community group said we couldn't talk about health, so we won on aesthetics," Revati said.
Unfortunately for residents like Rubinstein and Revati, contributions to churches have taken a hit in this economy, so they're a prime target for cellphone companies dangling lucrative lease agreements in exchange for allowing them to locate a tower on the property. Cellphone firms are also wooing firehouses, private citizens and towns themselves — towers are being erected on both public and private property, and there's a federal initiative to extend broadband access to remote and rural areas.
Some residents have criticized the way their local governments have handled the issue. Morton Bleetstein, a retired financial planner who lives in a gated community in North Hills, Long Island, protested when Sprint erected a cell tower near him eight years ago. "It was the way it was done — there were no hearings, nothing. We were fuming," Bleetstein said. The tower was in full view of the community, about 60 or 70 feet above the tree line, he recalled. When the residents pressed the North Hills Village Board to have the tower removed, Sprint agreed to reduce its height by half.
Boomers want broadband
To be sure, boomers, as they age, will benefit from improved broadband access — in greater access to mobile health applications and emergency services. Still, those who moved to their homes or retirement communities when they were cell tower-free insist that there must be alternative locations for the towers.
Ann Brooks, a spokesperson for T-Mobile, said that the ability for carriers to select cell tower location is crucial, however. "Close to 25 percent of Americans are wireless households — they have cut their landlines and are using only their wireless devices to keep in touch with their businesses and families. We've got to provide the infrastructure that allows them to use their phones when and where they want. That means we are going closer to residential areas," she said.
Lawyer Norman Albert represented Union County, N.J., when a group of cellular providers wanted to erect a tower on the grounds of a swim club in the town of Cranford in 2008. Local residents voiced the increasingly common concerns about property values and potential health hazards, while the county argued that the beauty of a nearby park would be affected. The wireless companies failed to make the case that the tower was necessary. Albert, 56, who lives in Cranford, said recently that he sympathizes with the residents — he would not have wanted a tower near his house, either. "But as more cases happen, cellphone companies will get more sophisticated in how they present and appeal these cases," he noted.
The "stealth solution"
In some areas, towers are designed to look like a pine or palm tree, which cellphone companies say fit well with the scenery, as opposed to the readily identifiable steel monopole design. Companies such as Engineered Endeavors and Stealth Network Technologies have disguised the towers to resemble saguaro cacti, flagpoles, clock towers and lighthouses. Antennas have also been hidden in church steeples and placed on water towers.
These "stealth solutions" are one way in which carriers are trying to appease residents, said Brian Josef, director of regulatory affairs for CTIA. "Carriers have responded in a number of ways to try to address coverage issues while being respectful of consumers' concerns about more towers," he added. For example, besides "stealth antennas," they have introduced smaller antennas that can be placed on utility and light poles for increased coverage. He also noted that people can buy free-standing, mini-cell sites for the home, called "femtocells," for better service for mobile phones.
Such solutions might have mollified Northville, Conn., resident Eric Jones, 46, who spoke out at a local zoning commission meeting against construction of a cell tower on his road two years ago. "I didn't see the need for it. Cell phone service is a convenience, not a necessity. I was worried about whether it would be visible," Jones said. Like others, the medical laboratory worker was concerned that it would decrease property values. The cellphone company won the argument that the tower was needed in Northville, and it was erected.
It is not only the unsightliness of the towers that angers residents; some people take issue with the research indicating that the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the towers does not pose a problem. The Federal Communications Commission states on its website: "Measurements made near typical cellular and PCS installations, especially those with tower-mounted antennas, have shown that ground-level power densities are thousands of times less than the FCC's limits for safe exposure." Some residents argue that cellular technology is too new to be certain about the long-term effects, however, and further studies are needed. To be sure, the subject elicits strong feelings from opponents, especially among those concerned about their children's safety.
For Jones and his neighbors, the fight is over. In numerous other towns, however, the controversy rages on.
Pat Olsen lives in New Jersey.