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Neighbors give cell tower bad reception

Concordia project halted, but some warn city needs orderly plan
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Construction of a T-Mobile wireless transmission structure on Northeast Prescott Street was halted last week after the city discovered that its permits had expired.

The latest skirmish in Portland's on again/off again cell phone tower conflict took place recently when residents of the Concordia neighborhood objected to a T-Mobile installation on Northeast Prescott Street.

Residents there alerted City Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office Aug. 5 that what they believed to be an illegal cell tower was going up without required neighborhood notification. Saltzman's office reacted quickly: within hours of receiving the complaint and determining that permits for the cell facility were not in place, city workers ordered a construction crew to halt work at the site.

It turns out the installation, at the corner of Prescott and Northeast 31st Avenue, was not for a cell tower but for the ground-level equipment that powers cell antennas. Concordia resident Bruce Badrick had given T-Mobile permission to place its equipment in his yard, and he reached a monthly lease agreement with T-Mobile in 2008.

T-Mobile also had permission to add its antennas to a utility pole in the public right of way just outside Badrick's home. But those permits, acquired in 2008, had expired.

In the meantime, neighborhood concerns about the health effects of cell phone transmission equipment have grown. Residents of other Portland neighborhoods also want the city to better plan for future cell tower installations, something that isn't happening today.

A T-Mobile spokesman says the company will reapply for the permits. But on Aug. 9, the Concordia Neighborhood Association board, after hearing complaints from neighbors, voted to send a letter to city commissioners asking that alternative sites be considered for the transmission equipment.

Portland ranks potential cell transmission sites on a suitability scale of 1 to 4, and the Northeast Prescott spot is a priority 4 - the least desirable choice. Robin Johnson, chairwoman of the neighborhood association board, says higher priority sites should be available.

'It's not as if there's a dead zone at 31st and Prescott,' she says.

Property owner Badrick says he can't figure out what all the fuss is about. He wasn't aware that T-Mobile's permits had expired and he isn't worried about the potential health effects of cell phone transmission towers.

Badrick says T-Mobile was supposed to pay him rent for the right to place its communications building on his property. Badrick says that T-Mobile paid him an initial fee in 2008 but only recently began paying him monthly rent. In addition, Badrick says that on a number of occasions he notified T-Mobile that their permits to place equipment on his property had expired.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this story was incorrect when it said Badrick had received rent payments since 2008.)

Only recently, he says, have a few neighbors complained.

'I'm all for it. I don't think it's a medical hazard. It feels like a personal attack on me. They seem to think I'm the bad man,' says Badrick, 62, and looking for work since being laid off last year.

Badrick would not disclose how much rent T-Mobile is paying him.

City master plan

Jennifer Li, utility program manager for the Portland Office of Cable Communications and Franchise Management, says that the city approves wireless transmitters in residential neighborhoods only as a 'last resort.' In 2010, the city approved 10 applications for wireless attachments on utility poles. So far this year, no new applications have been filed.

Andy Frazier has a suggestion: The city should create a master plan for cell tower siting and construction.

Frazier has been among a handful of Portland residents leading the fight against placement of cell phone equipment in neighborhoods, and he says there is a priority 3 site two blocks away on Northeast 33rd Avenue.

Frazier and members of RespectPDX filed a lawsuit last year to block a cell tower site at Northeast 37th Avenue and Fremont Street. Eventually, Clearwire, which was installing the equipment, abandoned the site.

Frazier has heard that some people can receive as much as a few thousand dollars a month for placement of transmission structures on their property. Frazier says some transmission equipment produces a constant hum that neighbors find objectionable.

Then there's the question of whether the transmission equipment represents a health hazard. The World Health Organization recently reported that living near a cell phone tower might increase cancer risk for some people. But the report also says the use of individual cell phones might also increase cancer risk.

The report made clear that there isn't enough scientific evidence either way on the issue.

T-Mobile spokesman Rod Delarosa says people are demanding better cell coverage and the proposed transmission facility 'will provide residents with improved coverage to better serve the growing need to stay connected with their mobile devices.'

Frazier says the city needs to develop policies to guide the siting of cell tower equipment, because in the next few years wireless companies will seek hundreds of new transmission sites.

'This is going to affect everybody,' says Frazier, who leads the city's small business advisory council.

Frazier says the city needs to work with cell phone companies to create an orderly master plan guiding where future transmission facilities will be placed. Absent a planning process, he says, the companies will continue to choose places they want for antennas, leaving citizens with little recourse but to object to city officials if they want them stopped.

'It's just a matter of planning. You'd think a city where all they do is plan, they'd want to plan,' Frazier says. 'For whatever reason, this is one area they don't want to.'

Frazier says neighbors have to be vigilant in protesting new installations before they go up. 'Once they go up, they're not coming down,' he says.