Neighborhood Action

Lower Pacific Heights

Neighbors Convince Property Owner to Break Contract with Wireless Carrier and Successfully Appeal Planning Commission Approval to Board of Supervisors

In May of 2000, neighborhood residents received notice that a wireless carrier planned to install three PCS antennas in the steeple of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at the corner of California & Broderick Streets, directly across the street from the Drew College Preparatory School and numerous residential apartments. Over 20 neighbors turned out for a community meeting attended by agents representing the wireless company, radiofrequency (RF) engineers brought in to assure community members of the safety of the proposed antenna facility, and the Pastor of the Church who had signed a contract for the antenna installation.

At the July 2000 Planning Commission hearing on the Conditional Use permit application, neighbors presented strong enough evidence of their opposition and the carrier's inadequate public notification of its proposal for the Commission to delay a final decision for another month. During this period, a number of community members met with the Pastor of the Church, presenting over 120 signed petitions and additional scientific studies supporting their concerns about possible adverse health effects. While the Pastor, a retired cardiologist, voiced skepticism about some of the scientific issues raised, he nonetheless acknowledged the genuineness of the neighbors' concerns and, as a result, withdrew from his contract with the carrier before the Planning Commission could render an approval.

The community's celebration of this good-neighborly gesture by the Church was short-lived, however, as it soon learned that the carrier had located another potential site for its three antennas just one block to the east at California & Divisadero Streets. The new location was a mixed-use apartment building, one-half block from the Dr. William Cobb Elementary School and two convalescent hospitals. Anyone under the illusion that the carrier had been working with the neighborhood' to address their concerns, as it claimed to the Planning Department, could safely lay that misconception to rest.

For the next 12 months, the neighborhood successfully kept a Planning Commission hearing on the new proposed antenna site at bay, citing building code violations at the proposed location, inadequate notification of parents at the two nearby schools, and broken promises by the carrier to neighborhood representatives. After submitting approximately 100 letters questioning the necessity of the site for the carrier's network, a dozen statements from local business owners in opposition, and written testimony from neighborhood cellular phone customers attesting to the quality of their service in the area, the Planning Commission finally heard the matter and granted its inevitable approval on November 15, 2001. Only one Commissioner voted against the proposal, citing the neighborhood's status as a "Preference 5" category under the City's WTS Guidelines.

Those neighbors who had persisted in seeing this struggle through for the past year-and-a-half fully expected such a decision, and began gathering the signatures of property owners within a 300-ft. radius of the antenna site necessary to appeal the decision to the full Board of Supervisors. As the holiday season following the New Year drew to a close, they learned that their appeal had qualified and that the Board of Supervisors would hold its hearing on January 14, 2002.

At the appeal hearing, residents contested the carrier's claims that the site was necessary for the functioning of its network with testimony from its own customers in the neighborhood who had no problems making and receiving calls in areas where the carrier had maintained either "No Service" or an "Unusable Signal" existed. They also disputed the carrier's unsubstantiated figures for dropped and blocked calls in the area by pointing out that network problems other than antenna signal strength can adversely affect cellular service and by calculating the number of call seconds per month that a typical base station antenna site can transmit. Residents then demonstrated that the number of dropped/blocked calls in a given month claimed by the carrier amounted to less than a fraction of 1% of the total call seconds per month capacity of its nearest cellular antenna site.

Neighbors also pointed to the predominantly residential character of the area and the statements from local businesses which mentioned potential loss of customers due to fear of possible health effects from the antennas. Neighbors argued that the carrier thereby failed to meet the standards of Proposition M (passed by voters in 1986), which form one of the requirements of the City's WTS Facilities Siting Guidelines.

As in a previous appeal before the Board of Supervisors, Supervisor Matt Gonzalez took the lead in his questioning of the carrier and local residents who were cellular phone customers. While the carrier came prepared this time around with over 30 declarations from its customers stating problems with their service in the area the proposed antennas were purported to serve, the testimony of residents, coupled with the refusal of the carrier to disclose the total number of calls it processed through its existing cell sites relative to the number of dropped/blocked calls it was claiming, resulted in another decisive win for San Francisco's neighborhoods. The decision was 10-1 in favor of the appeal, with Supervisor Tony Hall casting the only dissenting vote.

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