Making Waves
OC’s latest round of resident-vs.-cell-phone-tower fights has brought a tsunami of cancer talk, which experts say is based on . . . not much

With his crew cut, business suit and wiry black beard, Peter J. Ferraro looked like an awkward cross between a salesman and a scientist at a meeting in Irvine’s Woodbridge Village on April 29. He talked that way, too. Trying to convince residents they should allow a cellular-reception tower to be built in local Springacre Park, the “site-development specialist” on contract for T-Mobile spoke quickly, emphasized the positives and uhhhh-ed plentifully as he faced down a room full of people convinced that the product he was pitching causes cancer.

To prove the need for the proposed cell tower, Ferraro produced a map of Irvine, color-coded to show cell service. He wanted the 60 or so residents gathered to focus on the big gray “dead zone” where Woodbridge sits, but their eyes more likely noted the fact that each existing cell tower was represented by three triangles fused at one tip (yes, like the sign for nuclear radiation) and that the shades of green indicating good cell service were roughly the color of cartoon plutonium.

“Imagine thinking that your neighbor had an emergency, grabbed their cell phone and had no service,” he said, pointing to the map’s gray streak. “This is the problem right here.” Then he loudly cleared his throat.

The scene has played out across the country repeatedly over the past 10 years as PR-challenged local reps of wireless providers have tried to convince city councils, planning commissions, school boards, homeowners’ associations and flash mobs of concerned neighbors that they should accept a 50-foot fake tree that emits radio waves onto their property. And the scene that followed Ferraro’s presentation is one familiar to Orange County in recent years: a line of moms, dads and kids stepping up to a microphone, looking a cell-tower proponent in the eye and telling that proponent to put the cancer-causing death antenna somewhere else—preferably where the sun doesn’t shine.

Another recent case in point: On April 23, parents of children attending Harbour View Elementary School in Huntington Beach got a break from their morning drop-kid-off routines when they spotted a big red crane next to the playground and a long truck with a fake pine tree in its bed parked nearby. It was the cell tower that T-Mobile planned to put in Harbour View Park, feet away from the school blacktop. Gracey Vandermark says she and another parent stood in the parking lot for more than an hour to prevent T-Mobile’s trucks from bringing the tower to its installation point.

The city council had unanimously approved the tower in January, but the school’s parents, faculty and neighbors (including—full disclosure—Weekly editor Ted B. Kissell) heard nothing about it until a hole was dug in the ground in mid-April. So Mayor Keith Bohr received a good chewing-out from 200 or so residents at a meeting with the community that night, which he admits was partly deserved. Bohr called an emergency meeting of the Huntington Beach City Council for April 27—at which it was announced T-Mobile had agreed to renegotiate their contract and halt the tower’s construction. But that didn’t stop 20 of the 200 people who attended from speaking about the cancer-causing nature of cell-phone towers.

“Oh, there’s no data to support that,” says Louis Slessin, a wireless-industry observer for more than 30 years and editor of Microwave News, when asked about the notion that cell towers induce cancer. Of course, Slessin points out, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t “certain uncertainties” about towers. Groups such as the World Health Organization and the FCC have said there’s no compelling evidence that cell towers harm anyone, but a quick Internet search reveals a bevy of sources, varying in credibility, that claims otherwise. “It’s very hard for you to decide who to believe,” Slessin says. “The bottom line is that there are no good studies that I find reliable on cell towers.”

Finding out that research on cell towers was inconclusive was “disturbing” to Laguna Niguel resident Haya Sakadjian, founder of Mission Viejo Cell Out. She used to live in Mission Viejo, but after a few years of actively fighting the proliferation of cell towers and antennas at a Jewish temple neighboring her condo, she decided to move her family to another town. She remains outspoken whenever the issue of cell towers comes up in Mission Viejo, as it did in 2007, when residents crowded City Hall to complain about the city’s adoption of a “wireless master plan” that didn’t ban towers from parks.

“A lot of the evidence that states [cell-phone radiation] is not harmful is coming from the industry,” Sakadjian says. “Someone should be paying for some independent research, and until then, there should be some precautionary steps that are taken.”

Last week, the Irvine City Council voted to lift the city’s moratorium on new cell towers, citing a recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that legitimized Irvine’s previously struck-down wireless-regulation ordinance. The court case dealt with a San Diego wireless controversy, but a lower court last month said that it effectively reverses a court decision last year invalidating Irvine’s wireless ordinance, which specified that the city could make its tower-approval decisions partly on the basis of aesthetics. That ordinance was challenged during a contentious fight in the Turtle Rock neighborhood of Irvine in 2006 over whether to allow a tower into the community.

Joe Thompson, T-Mobile’s Southern California zoning and governmental-affairs manager, represented the wireless company at last week’s meetings in both Huntington Beach and Irvine. After Ferraro spoke at Woodbridge, Thompson fielded questions from residents. He tried to point out that reputable organizations say cell towers are safe. He claimed that he has lived with a cell tower behind his house for 15 years with no ill effects on his family. He noted that most of the people complaining about towers rely on cell phones. But the crowd was tough; at one point, a woman in Uggs and a man in a track suit began chanting, “Shame on you!”

“I’m here to provide information,” Thompson responded. “I’m not going to hide anything. If we don’t get the cell site, we don’t get the cell site.” Then he paused. “We’ll build somewhere else.”

skornhaber@ocweekly.com

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