Jim Harrison, a San Luis Obispo County planning commissioner, shared an eerie personal anecdote before he voted to deny a Verizon Wireless application to install a 65-foot cell tower in the heart of Santa Margarita.
"I have some problems with cell towers being located close to people," Harrison said at a Sept. 28 commission hearing. "I know a location where there was a cell tower directly over a group of people who slept in that building every night, and they all did have cancer."
Harrison's comments echoed the concerns of scores of Santa Margarita residents who showed up at the commission hearing to voice opposition to the cell tower, proposed to be installed behind a lumber store on El Camino Real and resemble a water tank.
The Planning Commission denied Verizon's application 3-1, with Commissioner Jay Brown dissenting, determining that the location and height of the tower were inconsistent with Santa Margarita's community plan and disruptive to the historical feel of the downtown, among other reasons.
"This kind of design is not going to fool anybody. It's not a historical structure," said Commissioner Michael Multari.
One reason the commission wasn't allowed to cite for its denial? Residents' increased exposure to the radiofrequency (RF) coming off the tower, which locals fear could bring about adverse health effects.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates RF through the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and local governments, by law, cannot reject new wireless communications facilities based on RF exposure if they fall under the RF limits.
On Oct. 12*, Verizon filed an appeal of the commission's denial to the Board of Supervisors, and suggested that the county had overstepped its authority. A date for the appeal hearing has not been set.
"The Planning Commission lacked substantial evidence to make the required findings for denial required under the Telecommunications Act," Verizon's appeal states. "The denial is preempted by federal law and must be reversed."
According to Verizon, its current network infrastructure is inadequate to service Santa Margarita, a town of 1,300 residents. And the telecommunications giant says the area's cell and data coverage will only get worse heading into the future.
The tower currently serving the area, located on the Cuesta Grade about 3.5 miles south of the town, "can no longer effectively serve" the area, according to William Hammett, Verizon's engineer representative. Verizon has plans to shut down the Cuesta Grade facility in two years.
"Mountain top sites do not function well in today's 4G networks," Hammett wrote in a memo to the Planning Commission. "It is too far from the users for high band signals to function, too high in elevation, and causes interference over a very wide area."
While several Santa Margarita residents argued that they did not have complaints about their cell service (90 percent of respondents in a poll of 29 Santa Margarita-based Verizon customers said they had good service), major cellular providers are looking toward a future of even stronger connectivity and data demand. After 3G data speed evolved to 4G, which will soon be replaced by 5G, antennas must be installed closer together and in higher numbers—onto telephone poles, for instance—to accommodate the technology. A recently proposed state bill, Senate Bill 649, to make permitting those antennas easier for the industry was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 15.
Hammett said a cell tower in downtown Santa Margarita would be the ideal location for those future plans, as opposed to an alternative site on the outskirts of the town.
"The proposed site, with its central location would make a good additional 5G site when that technology is ready due to its close proximity to the user base," Hammett stated.
But Santa Margarita residents at the commission hearing weren't the least bit interested in having the tower in close proximity. Their concerns about being overexposed to RF were not quelled by the Verizon engineer tests stating that the highest exposure would be between 7.7 and 12 percent of the FCC's legal limit.
Jack Contreras, a neighbor to the proposed tower who lives with a heart pacemaker implant, said he was worried that the RF from the tower could interfere with his device.
"I have a pacemaker implant. It can be affected by the electromagnetic interference, which would change the programming of it and could cause death," Contreras said. "I'm concerned."
Several speakers, and a planning commissioner, expressed skepticism about the FCC's RF limit, which some argued could be too high as cellular towers and antennas proliferate across the country.
"You should really be talking to our congressman," Multari told the audience.
Most of the research around cellular RF and its effects on human health concludes that exposure under the limit is not correlated with diseases like cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Unlike radiation such as X-rays and UV light, RF has long wavelengths that do not "directly damage the DNA inside cells," according to the organization's website. Some lab studies, though, have found that RF waves may have effects on human cells that "might possibly help tumors grow." However, those studies haven't been verified and the results contradict "the very few studies" of living people, according to the organization.
Hammett, representing Verizon, said the FCC is monitoring RF standards "all the time." He said while the Telecommunications Act dates back to 1996, multiple reviews of the exposure limit in subsequent years have not resulted in any changes.
He noted that cellphones themselves were a greater source of RF absorption than the cell towers.
"The absorption rate of energy from your phones is higher than you'd get anywhere in the vicinity of this facility," Hammett said.
*CORRECTION: The original article misstated the date Verizon's appeal was filed. It's been corrected.
Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.