Noe Valley Voice September 1997

Pacific Bell Eyes Church Steeple As Antenna Site

By Denise Minor

The Noe Valley Ministry's landmark steeple may soon house more than just air and the occasional visiting pigeon. Pacific Bell hopes to make a deal with the church to install mobile communications equipment in the steeple to improve cellular phone service in Noe Valley.

"Noe Valley is getting poorer service than other neighborhoods because it does not have an antenna," said Lynn Bunim, director of Pac Bell's External Affairs Department. "We would like to give people service as good as any they would get driving down Van Ness Avenue."

The debate unfolding in response to the proposal has left most people standing in the middle listening to two groups with radically different philosophies about how much we should allow technology to intrude into our lives.

"It seems to me there are two camps in Noe Valley," said Harry Stern, who is monitoring the issue for the residents group Friends of Noe Valley.

"We have the techies, who are `online,' surf the Web, use a fax machine, and carry a cell phone," he said.

"We also have the Luddites, who are opposed to everything technological. They are hardcore anti-computer, they view cell phones with suspicion," continued Stern, "and they wonder why they should have to put up with these telecommunications systems just because some yuppie guy wants to use his cell phone."

In early August, Pacific Bell unveiled its plans at a community meeting at the church, an 111-year-old Gothic Victorian at 1021 Sanchez St. The proposal calls for installation of three directional-panel antennas, hidden within the church steeple at about 62 feet above the sidewalk. In addition, a small cabinet containing a transceiver would be located on the north roof of the building.

Noe Valley Needs Better Reception

The Pac Bell equipment is designed to help local transmission for the company's Personal Communications Services (PCS). "PCS" is also shorthand for the latest generation of digital cell phones and pagers.

Bunim of Pac Bell told the 30 people in attendance at the meeting that PCS phone service in Noe Valley would vastly improve with the Ministry antennas.

"We've been getting complaints that our service in Noe Valley is not as good as in other areas," she said, noting that Noe Valley was one of the last neighborhoods to get an antenna site. Cellular phones need to "see" an antenna in order to transmit a signal, she said, and this is difficult in San Francisco because there are so many hills.

Bunim also pointed out that mobile phones could be especially helpful in emergencies. "During the 1989 earthquake, cellular phones were the lifeline to the Marina," she said.

In anticipation of questions about any health risks that might be posed by the technology, Pac Bell brought along a consultant, Dr. Jerold Bushberg, director of health physics programs at U.C. Davis Medical Center.

Bushberg said the Pac Bell antennas would emit directional, low-energy, non-ionizing radiation at a very low frequency. "There is no identifiable health hazard at this threshold," he said.

He noted that PCS radiation was the same type as that emanating from a TV, microwave, baby monitor, or AM/FM clock radio. Non-ionizing radiation differs from X-rays in that it is noncumulative, Bushberg said.

What About the Health Risks?

But audience member Christopher Beaver said he was still worried about the potential cumulative effect of the many sources of radiation that surround us, including emissions from Sutro Tower. Others at the meeting asked if, once Pacific Bell installed its antennas, GTE and Cellular One couldn't then install their own communications systems in the tower, in effect tripling the radiation coming from the steeple.

Bushberg said the radiation levels were so low that he didn't foresee a health hazard, even in the event that other companies installed antennas nearby.

Bunim noted that the city's Department of Public Health spent two years studying the issue and developing safety standards in line with those adopted by the Federal Communications Commission. She pointed out that the radiation emitted from their telecommunications equipment fell well below FCC guidelines. "The signal emits less [radiation] than you'd get if you were a policeperson with a radio," she said.

According to Pac Bell handouts, the current FCC standard for continuous exposure to PCS frequencies (approximately 1,800 megaherz) is 1,000 microwatts per square centimeter. People living near an FM radio station transmitter are typically exposed to 100 microwatts/cm2. Those using a microwave oven are exposed to an average of 20 microwatts/cm2. And those living near the typical PCS transmission site are exposed to about 1 microwatt per square centimeter, the Pac Bell literature claims.

Church Should Play Devil's Advocate

Jorge Bustamante lives next door to the Ministry at 1031 Sanchez St. He voiced his concern that the studies were based on the maximum allowable exposure to adults, not children or people with compromised immune systems.

He also said he was concerned that there might be other health risks posed by living in the shadow of these antennas that health officials didn't even know how to look for because the technology was so new.

"I have two small children, and I don't want to learn several years down the road that they have been exposed to anything that could harm them," said Bustamante. "They are the most precious thing I have."

Bustamante said he was certainly not anti-technology. His wife is a school district instructor who regularly teaches adults and children in how to use computers. But he would like to get more information about the antennas, possibly from a group with scientific knowledge who could play devil's advocate.

"I would like to have a meeting with just the neighbors, the minister, and some group that is both knowledgeable and critical of this type of technology, so we could address our concerns without the intervention of a company that is trying to convince us these things would be good for us," said Bustamante.

Minister Joan Huff said she did not know how willing the church would be to seek out a devil's advocate, but that she had invited the city's Health Department to hold a meeting with parents of the Noe Valley Cooperative Nursery School, which is housed at the Ministry. She added that the meeting would be open to anyone else who might be interested.

"The Health Department has studied this for two years, and I hope they will be able to address everyone's concerns about the health issues," said Huff.

City Has Set Limits on Exposure

Other neighborhoods with similar mobile communications equipment have had questions about the health risks, said Stephen Garcia of Telecommunications Management Services, who has been contracted by Pac Bell to help with installation of antennas throughout the city.

"That's why the Department of Health took such a long time to study the research on this issue," he said. "San Francisco has adopted very explicit requirements as far as exposure to PCS frequencies. In that way, they don't have to deal with the health issues on a case-by-case basis."

About 30 antenna sites have been installed so far, said Garcia, and he personally has worked to clear the way for installation in six neighborhoods.

Friends May Stay Neutral

Stern from Friends of Noe Valley was impressed by Pac Bell's presentation at the meeting. "They were well prepared. I think they learned from Sprint," he said.

(In January, Sprint asked the city to okay installation of four antennas and a transceiver station atop the newly restored Hoffman Fire Station. But the neighbors made such an outcry, Sprint dropped the firehouse idea this spring.)

Stern was a human factors and systems safety specialist for 30 years, and is knowledgeable about non-iodizing radiation.

"I'm reasonably well satisfied that, given the type of equipment they are proposing and the testing they have done, there will be no health hazard posed by the antennae, at least no hazards that we now know how to look for," said Stern.

"However, there still might be some unknown effects from things not addressed by their studies. We aren't completely certain about the cumulative effect of antennas from more than one phone company and from various types of electromagnetic radiation. Also, we don't know whether this radiation might act differently over rolling hills or in urban environments where it can be reflected off the buildings," he continued.

"Because of that, my personal opinion is one of neutrality," Stern said. "And at the next meeting of the Friends of Noe Valley, I will propose a neutral position."

Pastor Huff said that the Ministry had not yet taken a position on the equipment either. Pac Bell approached the church earlier in the year, and the Ministry was simply allowing the company to hold informational meetings.

She said she was not at liberty to say how much Pac Bell was offering to pay for use of the steeple, since that was still in negotiation.

"Our financial situation is such that any increased income from building use fees would be a godsend," said Huff. "But we won't go ahead if our neighbors really don't want us to."

Paula Marks, administrative director for the Noe Valley Ministry, said that many of her concerns about the antennas were allayed at the August meeting.

"I personally had a lot of questions about this before the meeting, and I really didn't think it would fly," she said. "But the information provided by Pac Bell was very encouraging, and now I don't have any health concerns for myself.

"But if the community doesn't want this, we won't pursue it," she added.

Huff said that final approval from the Ministry would have to come from the Session, the Presbyterian church's governing body of six elders.

Antennas Require Special Permit

Garcia said that if the Ministry gave Pac Bell the go-ahead, the issue would then go before the Planning Commission. He noted that Pac Bell would have to obtain a conditional use permit and that neighbors living within 300 feet of the proposed installation would be given written notice of hearings.

Bunim said she had heard from associates at Pac Bell that the Ministry site had the tentative support of the Planning Commission. "The Planning Commission likes this site very much," she said. "They have indicated that every neighborhood needs an antenna, and that for Noe Valley this would be a good location."

But Commissioner Hector Chinchilla, whom Bunim suggested the Voice contact, said he knew nothing about the proposal. Planner Edy Zwierzycki, who is in charge of investigating planning issues that affect Noe Valley, also said she had not studied the proposed antenna station at the Ministry and that she would not do so until the commission received a formal request from Pac Bell.

At the public meeting, Bunim said that if the Ministry did not accept the antennas, her company would look for another site in Noe Valley.

Those who'd like to discuss the situation with the church should call Paula Marks at 282-2317. To direct questions to Pac Bell, call Lynn Bunim of Pacific Telesis Group at 394-3673 (fax: 394-3698).