Olympia cell tower proposal riles neighbors

A proposed cell tower is on hold while AT&T continues to face pressure from Olympia residents who cite concerns about cell towers and their potential health effects on children.

South Capitol Neighborhood resident Donna Flanagan began circulating a petition in June that opposed a new cell tower at Stevens Field near Lincoln Elementary School. She had collected nearly 250 total signatures – in person and online – before learning that AT&T has stopped pursuing the site at 300 24th Avenue SE.

The proposed cell tower is “on hold indefinitely,” said Marianne Bichsel, spokeswoman for AT&T. In December, the company also dropped plans for a cell tower at Roosevelt Elementary School in Olympia’s Northeast Neighborhood.

“There is a voice and data coverage gap in this area that AT&T is trying to address,” Bichsel wrote in an email. “Through our community engagement process, several other sites were suggested that we are now evaluating.”

To meet demand for wireless service, AT&T is pursuing five to seven cell tower sites in Thurston County, with at least four in Olympia. Flanagan told The Olympian that she is happy AT&T representatives are working with neighborhoods during the process. She said her petition was meant to be more of a litmus test to show how people feel about the cell tower near Lincoln Elementary.

“I just feel that having a cell tower next to a school is not a good idea,” said Flanagan, adding that she’s not opposed to new cell towers, but doesn’t want one at her son’s school. “There’s enough information out there suggesting it could pose health problems for children.”

In January, AT&T requested a code amendment that would loosen Olympia’s zoning restrictions and permit requirements for wireless facilities. The amendment would allow wireless facilities at any public or city-owned property, which clashes with current city code that prohibits these structures in historic districts.

Olympia resident Matt Kennelly wants to take things a step further. His goal is to lobby the city and school district to restrict cell towers within 1,000 feet of a school. The community’s feedback about potential health concerns over radiofrequency waves, he said, is an indicator that the city needs such a policy.

This month, Kennelly said he plans to address the Olympia Planning Commission and the Olympia School Board about scheduling a discussion on those groups’ agendas.

“My approach is not to debate the science around it. My approach is more of the precautionary principle,” Kennelly said of a cell tower’s perceived health effects on surrounding areas. “It hasn’t been proven harmful, but it hasn’t been proven safe either.”

The Coalition of Neighborhood Associations has formed a wireless subcommittee to assist AT&T with identifying alternative sites. Peter Guttchen, who leads the subcommittee, said he is waiting for city staff’s recommendations on the proposed ordinance, which must still go before the Olympia City Council before final approval.

“We have very much appreciated AT&T’s willingness to listen and find alternative sites,” Guttchen said. “We are here to help them assess those alternatives once the list gets narrowed.”

The city retained Issaquah law firm Kenyon Disend to evaluate the proposed amendments by AT&T. The firm submitted its 33-page evaluation June 20 to Steve Friddle, principal planner for Olympia. Friddle was unable to be reached for comment as of press time.

The evaluation explores the legal challenges – and lack of clarity - created by Section 6409 of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. More specifically, Section 6409 prohibits local and state government from denying requests for wireless tower modifications.

The firm says AT&T is interpreting Section 6409 broadly, and that it is unclear whether the federal government can preempt a local government’s zoning authority. The evaluation concludes that the proposed amendments are “inconsistent with the current policy and regulatory framework adopted by the city.”

FYI: Health effects

According to a memo, AT&T sites federal guidelines and the American Cancer Society in declaring that “there are no known adverse health effects from cell sites and no health risks to the general public have been shown.” According to the American Cancer Society, “there is very little evidence” to support the idea that exposure to energy from cell towers is linked to cancer or health problems.

“High levels of (radiofrequency) waves can cause a warming of body tissues, but the energy levels on the ground near a cell phone tower are far below the levels needed to cause this effect,” the American Cancer Society reports on its website. “So far, there is no evidence in published scientific reports that cell phone towers cause any other health problems.”

In contrast, the BioInitiative 2012 report concludes that exposure to energy from cell towers and wireless facilities may have negative health effects. The report suggests that school districts prohibit or discourage cell towers within 1,000 feet of school properties. However, the Bioinitiative report has been criticized in the science community, including the Indian Council of Medical Research, which says “there is no balanced reflection of the current state of scientific knowledge.”