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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 22, 2007

Precaution is prudent

Government in a profit-driven capitalistic society is often slow to recognize and regulate health risks. The tobacco industry is a ready example. It took decades of scientific research with repetitive, undeniable results before the government started printing warnings on packs of cigarettes and later started making laws to protect people from second-hand smoke.

Currently, the risks of long-term, low-level radio-frequency radiation, emitted from antennas for the ubiquitous cell phone, are not known. In some European nations, antennas are not cited near schools, homes, hospitals, or wherever people gather, and children younger than 16 are advised not to use cell phones except for emergencies.

Respectable groups making these recommendations include the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones and Health in the United Kingdom, The Greater Glasgow Board of Health in Scotland, The German Pediatric Society, The Ecolog Institute in Hanover, The European Parliament Directorate General for Research, the Italian government, and The Royal Society of Canada.

Taking precautions is prudent until all the scientific data is in.

In our country, the citing of antennas is often left up to local zoning boards that feel powerless over placement.

Earlier this month, the Guilderland Zoning Board unanimously approved more cell phone antennas on the Westmere water tank. Chairman Peter Barber said that, if an applicant meets the Federal Communication Commission’s guidelines, "It’s out of our hands."

One courageous and well-informed citizen disagreed. Liesse Mohr, who lives near the water tower on Gipp Road, warned the zoning board about succumbing to business pressures driven by "consumer demand" and she cited work by B. Blake Levitt, a former New York Times science writer and author of Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer’s Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves. Levitt compiled the proceedings of conference held in Connecticut — "Cell Tower Forum: State of the Science/ State of the Law."

Levitt makes the important point that the right to determine signal strength at the local level has been upheld in federal case law in U.S. Sprint v. Willoth, and by the FCC. The FCC requires only about 75 percent coverage of an area, not 100 percent coverage.

Nextel is installing more antennas in Guilderland to allow the company to "penetrate" malls like Crossgates and the 20 Mall, said the company’s representative; customers have complained of little or no reception in those malls.

If we balance convenience — surely land lines could be used to call for help in the event of emergency in the malls — against health risks, we believe customer convenience is less important.

"It’s not our role to step into these matters," said Barber.

We believe it is the responsibility of government to look after and protect the health of its citizens.

"Something municipalities fail to keep in mind," writes Levitt, "is the basic legal fact that it is up to the providers of a service or product to prove that their wares are safe. It is not up to us to prove that they are unsafe. The telecommunications industry has largely failed to do that. Just because they are within the FCC guidelines for RF emissions, does not prove safety.

"No town today should allow itself to be intimidated by telecom service providers or adjunct industries like tower companies. Despite the preemptions, there is still a lot of power reserved to the municipalities, and there is a growing volume of good case law to back up local decisions."

The town of New Scotland, Guilderland’s neighbor, went to court in 2003 to defend a cell-tower denial and won. The tower company had sued after a zoning-board member pointed out that similar coverage was available from an already-existing church steeple.

Subsequently, New Scotland, using Barber’s legal expertise, drafted and passed a law in 2004 to regulate cell-tower placement in town. New Scotland wants cellular services, Supervisor Ed Clark said at the time, "but that doesn’t mean we have to do whatever the industry wants." New Scotland’s law lists requirements for applicants, such as visual-impact assessment, and specifies placement in a prioritized system.

Guilderland passed a cell-tower law in 1997, requiring special-use permits for towers and specifying such things as setbacks, approval by a town-designated engineer, documentation of intent and proof of need, long-range plans, and screening.

The decade-old law, which certainly provides more guidance than many towns offer, does not, however, address health concerns. Cell towers raise not just aesthetic issues but medical ones as well.

"Good zoning regulations are still the best protection," writes Levitt, "but this kind of regulation can be complicated." He lists key provisions, including:

— Monitoring for RF emission both before and after an installation to determine what changed in the environment;

— Establishing large set-backs, of at least 1,500 feet, from homes or schools or wherever people congregate;

— Taking metal objects into consideration — avoiding siting on or near metal water tanks, roofs, or girders — because they are conductive materials that can create localized hot spots;

— Establishing by-right zones where facilities can locate, but nowhere else;

— Allowing only signal strengths that will provide for adequate coverage and capacity, not blanket coverage;

— Requiring extensive engineering detail in applications so that companies have to prove a facility is really needed;

— Requiring independent engineering review of all applications and modifications to existing sites to establish the facts of a case that may be needed after turning an installation down;

— Encouraging those who want cell service to switch to satellite-based systems, which will reduce the number of ground-based facilities;

— Requiring the service provider, the tower owner, and the landowner to all be part of the application to discourage towers being built on speculation; and

— Writing liability protection into the regulations with proof of insurance annually submitted.

Telecommunications regulation and application-review are among the most complex forms of land-use law today, Levitt points out. "Done correctly, it is unlike anything that most planners and zoners have been called upon to do," he writes. "Many shy away from it because of the complexity."

Experts can be hired, though, to fill in the gaps. We recommend that the town of Guilderland use some of the nearly $100,000 that it brings in annually through antenna rentals to hire the experts it needs to determine precisely what coverage already exists in town. A public discussion should then ensue on how much more, if any, is needed and where. From there, a master plan or overlay district could be developed, specifying where facilities can be placed to provide adequate service.

The town must define its own goals, rather than just saying it’s in the hands of the FCC. That way, rather than being at the mercy of the cell-tower companies, Guilderland will be better able to protect its citizens.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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