Sonoma City Council rejects east side cellphone tower

Would a new cellphone tower at Fourth Street East and Lovall Valley Road be a beneficial use of private land, or an eyesore and public health hazard?

The Sonoma City Council addressed that question Monday night, eventually siding with neighbors who asked them to kill a proposal by AT&T to build an 80-foot cellphone tower near their homes – a tower the telecom giant says would fix a “significant service capacity gap” downtown.

But our service is fine, said several residents living nearby the proposed site, part of the Sebastiani winery complex. They also said the tower would be a blight on the landscape, even after it’s dressed up as an evergreen tree. And perhaps most controversially, some contended that electromagnetic radiation emissions from cellphone towers pose health hazards to people living nearby.

Those alleged hazards can include DNA damage, protein damage, impaired immunological function, “nerve damage to the brain” and many more terrible maladies, according to Wilking Way resident Jennifer Palladini.

A scientist and a mother of young children, Palladini said her assertions come from peer-reviewed studies indicating that cellphone towers present serious health risks. She and her husband, Mike Palladini, were among a half-dozen residents appealing a recent Planning Commission decision to allow the tower.

“The closer you live, the higher your risk,” she said. “Would you want loved ones living in a place with a 1-in-100 chance for cancer?”

Interestingly, federal law seems to bar council members from taking such arguments into consideration. The city’s staff report cites a clause from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 – repeated during the meeting by City Attorney Jeff Walter – stating that “No state or local government or instrumentality thereof may regulate the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions” so long as they comply with federal safety standards.

Others focused more on the aesthetics of the tower, with Mike Palladini telling council members it would “impair the architectural integrity and the character” of that part of town.

Property value was a concern as well. Alice May, a real estate agent, said her experience taught her that “For various reasons, a real estate property located next to a cellphone tower would not be a desirable property.”

But AT&T representatives also spoke, saying the tower was safe and that its signal was needed to meet ever-increasing demand. They said the project was well positioned, had a willing landlord and met all FCC safety requirements.

A packet submitted by the company states that the new tower is needed to “offload” Sonoma’s two existing AT&T cell towers, at 347 Andrieux St. and 21003 Broadway, and that the needed capacity is expected to grow dramatically in the coming years.

“Mobile operators are not just concerned with how many subscribers they can cover with a single tower,” the company said. “They are concerned with how many subscribers they can cover while those subscribers are streaming up to 100 Mbps of video simultaneously.”

And one Sonoma neighbor, John Dunning, got up to say that, “I want the excellent reception, unlike these other folks.”

Dunning, a retired physics professor from Sonoma State University, said he also served as the school’s radiation safety officer – and he believed the radiation emitted by cellphone towers was perfectly safe.

“My experience would say, relax,” he told the council.

Following the public input, council members gave their own impressions, with Mayor Tom Rouse saying, “I don’t believe we have any legal right to uphold the appellants’ request.”

He added that the unanimous Planning Commission decision, made last October, gave another compelling reason to side with AT&T. “They do their job, we expect them to do their job,” he said of the commissioners.

But Rouse stood alone in that view, with Councilmember Laurie Gallian saying that “Sometimes …not all of the information” on a contentious issue comes before the Planning Commission. The council majority then decided voted to uphold the appeal on a 4-1 vote, leading to boisterous clapping in the Community Meeting Room.