By BOB NORBERG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
After three hours of sometimes bitter debate about whether radio frequencies cause health problems, the Sebastopol City Council Tuesday allowed additional antennas to be added to an existing telecommunications tower behind City Hall.
The council in a 2-2 vote denied the appeal of the EMF Safety Network, a Sebastopol group that has vociferously fought PG&E’s SmartMeters, downtown Sebastopol Wi-Fi and cellphone antennas.
The motion to grant the appeal needed a majority to pass. Vice Mayor Michael Kyes and Councilwoman Sarah Gurney voted for it, Mayor Guy Wilson and Councilman Patrick Slayter opposed it and Councilwoman Kathleen Shaffer was absent.
“It is a total disregard for public health to foist technology on us that ignores human physiology,” said Linda Berg of Sebastopol, who says that electromagnetic waves cause her severe health problems.
But supporters of the tower strongly deny there are health concerns associated with the planned improvements.
The owner of the tower, Crown Castle, plans to add three antenna panels for Verizon to improve its cellphone coverage and ability to push more data to such devices as smartphones and tablets.
William Hammett, a Sonoma telecommunications consultant with Hammett & Edison Inc., said the antennas are necessary to beef up the cellphone network in the Sebastopol area.
“This will dramatically increase the ability to serve customers in this area,” Hammett said.
Hammett also denied that it would be a health hazard, contending the emissions will be below FCC guidelines by a wide margin.
The 106-foot tower behind City Hall, erected in 1996, has both television and cellphone communications antennas.
Sebastopol councilmembers, some of whom were sympathetic to the EMF Safety Network, said the city was constrained by the federal Telecommunications Act. The law allows jurisdictions to consider environmental impacts, but not health issues, as long as the radio waves fall within FCC guidelines.
“We are confronted by a legal situation where this local jurisdiction is profoundly limited by what it can do taking environmental concerns into this matter,” said Wilson, a lawyer. “We are proceeding outside the law.”
The EMF Safety Network was asking the City Council to overturn the approval for the tower additions by the city Planning Commission, which also found the proposal did not need an environmental impact study.
The group contends the Planning Commission did not have correct information supplied by the tower owner. They also contend the radio transmissions could be harmful to the wildlife, fish and plants of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a wetlands that has been proclaimed as having international significance.
Sandi Maurer, founder of the EMF Safety Network, said the additions to the tower were not a minor change and that wetlands are an issue that can be used to grant the appeal.
However, health concerns were acknowledged by all sides as an issue that is disallowed for consideration by federal telecommunications law. It nevertheless was the the central topic in the three-hour public hearing.
Kyes said that all the studies on cellphone safety are inconclusive.
“To say that there is a threshold that is safe is beyond what is reasonable,” Kyes said.
Slayter said the council can only act on what may be the environmental impact on the laguna, which is uncertain.
“I wholeheartedly applaud the work done by the Safety Network, but all we have to look at tonight is what we have before us,” Slayter said.