Neighborhood Action

Upper Fillmore

Neighbors Successfully Appeal Planning Commission Approval to Board of Supervisors

by Mark Zier

On July 16, 2001, the Board of Supervisors overturned the Planning Commission's approval of an antenna site at Washington and Fillmore Streets by a vote of 10-1. It all boiled down to one question: Was the carrier’s coverage in the neighborhood adequate? An owner of an antique shop around the corner on Fillmore, who also resides in the neighborhood and is a cell phone customer with the carrier proposing the site, was able to testify that he had no problems with his service. Supervisor Matt Gonzalez quizzed him on specific blocks in the neighborhood where the wireless carrier had indicated that there was no service. He responded that he had no problems making and receiving calls in those areas. The company’s own people had to admit that there was no reason to think that he wasn't telling the truth. On this basis, the Supervisors were able to conclude that the carrier had not demonstrated a need for the antennas, and thus saw no reason not to vote for the appeal. Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval was the sole dissenting vote, not so much on substantive grounds, but rather as a protest: affluent neighborhoods like the one in question that are good at organizing get what they want, but underserved neighborhoods that are not, don’t..

Over 40 people attended the hearing. At least 30 were from a one-block radius of Washington and Fillmore. More would have attended if the Sheriffs hadn't locked the doors because of a "People’s Budget" protest and civil disobedience that took place in the Board of Supervisor chambers immediately preceding the hearing of the antenna appeal. Neighbors and supporters gathered in a conference room next to Supervisor Gavin Newsom's office, where a SNAFU representative prepped those planning to speak on what to expect at the hearing. Scripts were available for those who wanted them. Everyone wore badges identifying the supporters of the appeal as a group.

The hearing started around 3:40 p.m. and lasted about 2 hours. The local resident who spearheaded the campaignled off with her 10-minute statement that outlined the basic issues: (1) The carrier’s coverage was at least adequate, and didn't justify another antenna (altogether, including all carriers, there are over 2,400 antennas in the City already); (2) the monitoring of these sites was compromised, since the engineering firm that certifies that these sites are safe and in compliance with FCC radiation emission standards has misrepresented the evidence to local officials in other jurisdictions; (3) the area within 300 feet of the site was essentially residential, pointing out the inadequacies of the City’s WTS Guidelines; and (4) the impact of the fear of health risks on local businesses and property values meant the carrier’s application did not meet the requirements of Proposition M regarding preservation of the existing character of the neighborhood. Then around 20 people spoke to the issue, including a 6-year-old boy who testified that if he had to have aluminum curtains for protection, it would be like living in a prison.

The wireless company had the usual cast of characters: a lawyer from the PR firm representing the carrier; a couple of sub-contracted engineers to talk about the technical details; and three of the carrier’s employees. There were three "average citizen" witnesses, none of whom lived in the neighborhood. The owner of the building who had signed an agreement with the carrier, and who lives in Napa, was the first of these to speak. He spoke of the commitment to the neighborhood of his wife's family over the generations, and that he thought he was doing everyone a favor by allowing the antennas to go in. (Of course, he would also get around $2,000/month from the carrier.) He claimed the authority of Dr. Wattenberg of Livermore Labs and pronounced that cell phone technology was perfectly safe (as we all know by now, not even the industry's own studies make that claim). He was particularly upset by the 60 phone calls he said he received from the neighborhood urging him to break his contract with the company. In fact, it made him so mad that when the carrier offered to withdraw, he refused to do so.

The last of the carrier’s employees to testify had a cell phone that kept going off while she was standing in line awaiting her turn. After the third occurrence, Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano couldn't resist commenting on the bad timing, inappropriateness and rudeness of it.

After the carrier had presented its case, the lead neighborhood rep had 3 minutes to rebut their arguments, and she reiterated her points. Then the Supervisors weighed in. They all seemed to have absorbed the mountain of material that was presented to them in advance, including documentation involving the case at Lookout Mountain, Colorado, demonstrating that the engineering firm certifying FCC compliance was not always trustworthy. Supervisors Gavin Newsom and Leland Yee spoke very strongly in favor of the appeal. Supervisor Tony Hall only raised a question of procedure. Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, the Board’s only Green Party member and himself an attorney, emphasized the technical legal points that would protect the Board from a potential lawsuit from the carrier. Supervisor Mark Leno expressed the concern that harassment of property owners who had signed agreements with wireless carriers could be as injurious to a neighborhood’s health and well-being as microwave radiation. Then they voted. The gallery burst into applause. And the rest, as they say, is history.


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