HB Council Moves to Spike School-Adjacent Cell Tower

Spencer Kornhaber / OCW
Spencer Kornhaber / OCW
Signs were posted near the construction site.

Remember that brouhaha last Thursday about a cell tower being built next to a Huntington Beach elementary school? Remember the outcry from parents, the indignation from school officials, and the petition from the kid who expressed an interest in having T-Mobile pay for his future cancer bills? Remember how the community around Harbour View park and Harbour View Elementary School weren't notified that a big ole' fake tree would be built on city property literally feet away from a kindergarten classroom?

Yeah, that's all better now. Mostly.

The hole was dug, the crane was in place, and the faux-leafy tower was sitting on the bed of a truck around the corner last Thursday when parents at Harbour View realized what was going on and confronted Huntington Beach Mayor Keith Bohr. Sensing that the council may have erred in approving the tower without public hearing back in January, Bohr called an emergency meeting of the council--held tonight.

About 200 people showed up, and 23 put in requests to speak. But before anyone from the public got up to the podium, City Attorney Jennifer McGrath announced the outcome of the earlier closed session meeting. The unanimous decision: Direct city staff to renegotiate the contract for the cell tower with T-Mobile, and reimburse T-Mobile up to $50,000 in expenses.

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It took a few seconds for news, delivered in McGrath's soft, bureaucratic tones, to make sense to the crowd. "Alright!" someone shouted, and the room hesitatingly applauded.

Bohr put a finer point on things: "I'd like to add, although it's not a done deal until it's a done deal, that the T-Mobile representatives committed verbally that they will not proceed with the site, actually to the extent we're deciding who's gonna fill the hole in. So I think we're moving in the right direction."

That's when the cheers, whooping, and true applause broke out. A few of the council members cracked grins behind the dais.

And then came the public comments...

Most of the 20 people who got up to the mic thanked the council for the decision. But most of them also spoke, not so thankfully, about something else: cancer.

The federal government has indicated that cell phone towers pose little or no danger to humans via radiation. But a few minutes spent on the Internet unveils a jungle of conflicting studies, hard-to-verify assertions and pure speculation about to the idea that radiation and electromagnetic fields from cell phones and antennae may cause cancer.

So, speakers trotted out personal anecdotes about disease, lectures of varying scientific merit, and one chart contrasting brain X-rays of adults versus those of infants. But another kind of complaint came from a woman who didn't like being blindsided by news of the tower's construction.

"My flower bed is less than 400 feet from the tower. My daughter attends Harbour Elementary," she said. "My first thought was, 'Why weren't we told?' That was before I even did the research on the health risks. It's still the thought that haunts me."

After public comment, the council voted unanimously to direct city staff to draft an ordinance altering the zoning code to make future school-site towers go through a different permit process than they currently do, opening them up for public hearings and increased scrutiny.

Talking to the Weekly after the meeting, Bohr stressed that the cell tower by Harbour View wasn't technically dead yet. T-Mobile still has a contract with the city for that site.

"I'm hoping T-Mobile senses exactly what we [the council] did and they don't try to play hardball in the negotiations," he said. "That's still a bit of a poker game going, but I'm confident we'll get there."


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