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Cellular antenna plans rile Eastmoreland neighbors

by: David F. Ashton This power pole is reportedly the one T-Mobile hopes to place an antenna atop, in Eastmoreland.

When cellular telephone carrier T-Mobile expressed its desire to 'provide better coverage in the area' - by erecting a cellular repeater antenna atop an existing 65-foot tall wooden utility pole at S.E. 37th Avenue and Ogden Street - opposition flared from Eastmoreland neighbors.

Still rankled by wireless provider Clearwire's attempt to install a similar antenna on a utility pole at SE 39th Street (Chavez) and Knapp, Eastmoreland neighbors have rallied, placing lawn signs featuring their slogan, 'WORST.PLAN.EVER'.

The flap over cell phone antennas on utility poles, where their appearance would be similar to existing electric power transformers, goes beyond the Eastmoreland incidents, according to E.N.A. Chair Robert McCullough. He says the issue is about 'a lack of process' to site these in 'fully-residential neighborhoods'.

McCullough's request to hold a meeting in the neighborhood with stakeholders was initially rebuffed; T-Mobile representatives countered by offering a meeting at Sellwood Middle School.

Finally, all parties agreed to a November 1 meeting, held at nearby Duniway Middle School.

Before the meeting started, Dietrich Nebert, with the words 'Ground Zero' emblazoned on his name tag, spoke with THE BEE saying he an elementary school science teacher with two children 'We are definitely the family at 'ground zero'. We are located under the 'tower' at 3678 SE Ogden Street. The extended utility pole went in three years ago without notification.'

After investigating the pending installation, Nebert said he spoke with City officials and raised concerns. 'Shortly thereafter, when we called the City [to enquire about the project's status] in 2009, we are told site would not be developed.'

His primary concern, Nebert said, was for the health of his family. 'The [T-Mobile] site manager mentioned that one of the nine antennas would be pointed in a direction that would go into the top floor of my house, approximately 45 feet from my daughter's bedroom.'

Adding that they moved to Eastmoreland to 'make a nest' for their family, Nebert claimed 'We are told that [installing the cell station] will take about 25% from our property values - which means we could lose from $60,000 $200,000 to the value of our home. It's just unfair.'

T-Mobile Government Affairs Manager Rod De La Rosa told THE BEE, 'We're here tonight to discuss an application for a project we have on a utility pole in the Eastmoreland neighborhood. Our customers are saying that they need better coverage to connect to those people who matter most to them with both their wireless telephones and broadband devices.'

The goal for the meeting, De La Rosa added, was to 'listen to concerns of the neighborhood, and answer questions that we can. This meeting is part of a process of the City of Portland, Office of Communications, who will also listen to the questions, take our answers, and then make a decision on whether or not this application will be approved.'

'Is the opposition you find to this project surprising?' we ask.

De La Rosa responded, 'Across the country, there is a debate. People want wireless services. The Obama administration talks about broadband for all. The FCC has laws in place to govern telecommunications carriers. Meetings like this are going on across the country. T-Mobile wants to be transparent, and educate folks, because there's a lot of misinformation out there.'

As participants filed in the Duniway auditorium, McCullough commented, 'The original plan for the meeting was for the neighbors not to speak. But, City officials, they will now give time to the neighbors who step forward.'

The auditorium was filling with participants when the meeting began with introductions. From the opening moments of the meeting, it quickly became clear that attendees felt free to shout comments and disrupt the proceedings from time to time.

Jennifer Le of the City of Portland Office of Community Technology set the stage, saying the Telecommunications Act of 1996 makes it clear that cities cannot restrict placement of cell phone stations. 'The City requires a meeting as part of the pre-application process for what they proposed to do,' Le added. 'We want to hear what neighbors have to say and discuss this with T-Mobile.'

T-Mobile Project Manager Josh Sommers said the project of finding a new cell site started in 2008, and has exhausted locating alternative sites.

Jai Chandran Rajan, a T-Mobile Radio Frequency Engineer, next presented details of their site search, saying by taking measurements in the area and doing computer modeling for radio coverage, they settled on four options:

• S.E. 37th Avenue at Ogden Street

• S.E. 34th Avenue and Bybee Bouelvard

• S.E 27th Avenue and Rex Street

• S.E. 37th Avenue and Lambert Street

Drew Thatcher, a board-certified Health Physicist which T-Mobile had invited spelled out his bonafides: 25 years in public health, and an adjunct professorship at Vanderbilt University. In answer to a shouted question before he began, Thatcher replied, 'Yes, T-Mobile has paid me to come here to speak to you.'

The professor started by explaining that cellular phone networks, particularly the newer digital ones, use quite low-powered transmitters to restrict the distance signals travel.

Continuing amid a growing chorus of heckles and catcalls, Thatcher said, 'The typical 'baby monitor' puts out a signal about 50 times stronger, at closer distance, than would enter the home a cell antenna.'

As promised, neighbor Dietrich Nebert was also allowed to present on behalf of his neighbors. His rationale for not adding to the utility pole near his home included:

• Proximity to [his] residence;

• Noise concerns about sound allegedly produced by the base station equipment;

• Potential for a 'cluster effect' of developing other sites in nearby neighborhoods;

• Allegedly reduced property values; and,

• Eroded neighborhood character.

After the presentations, as many as 16 people lined up to make comments.

McCullough began, 'We want to see a full siting study, see full alternatives - but more than that, we want to [as a neighborhood] have full participation. T-Mobile and AT and T are currently fighting the U.S. federal government, in court, for a merger. If they succeed, T-Mobile would cease to exist in a few months. [Their employees] might soon be gone; but this plan can disrupt the lifestyle of this community for decades.'

Comments ranged from threats of 'We will affect your bottom line!' to accusations that the Portland's cellular site permitting process was a money-maker for the city, and questioned the process for issuing permits.

The issue of health concerns was frequently raised. Kimberly Kohler, who she attended Duniway and was an Eastmoreland homeowner since 1958, cited a 2004 International Association of Firefighters report. 'It says firefighters don't want cellular stations near their fire stations because they are too dangerous. What do they know that we don't?'

Drew Thatcher responded that the first version of that report was a 'hatchet job', to which he wrote a point-by-point 12 page response.

So tense was the meeting, at times participants turned on one another.

Christopher Allen was roundly booed and shouted down when he got the microphone and identified himself as both a neighbor and a T-Mobile customer. 'Many of you are talking about [health concerns] as if it is scientific fact. You're really looking at property values. Why not in your yard? You're all using cell phones.'

Few of the more than estimated 150 folks who attended the meeting walked over to the school's gym where T-Mobile informational kiosks were set up.

After the meeting, McCullough made it clear that Eastmoreland neighbors had the will, and would put forward the resources, to continue the effort to keep their utility poles free from cellular telephone antennas. THE BEE will continue to follow this story.

--- SPECIFICS ABOUT CELLULAR RADIATION ---

Per a Powerpoint slide presented by T-Mobile, and which THE BEE discovers is generally accepted as accurate among engineers, the actual radio-frequency energy received in nearby homes, from cellular transmissions at the top of utility poles, is measured in fractions of microwatts (millionths of a watt) per square centimeter:

- Maximum Outdoor Exposure: 1.5 µW/cm2

- Maximum exposure to the nearest home 2nd Floor Bedroom: 0.08 µW/cm2

- Actual exposures outdoors will be less than 0.08 µW/cm2

- Actual indoor exposures will be less than 0.02 µW/cm2

These very low levels are not considered, by the Federal Communications Commission, to pose a health risk, and are much lower than incidental radiation from various electronic devices commonly used within homes.