Cell Towers Near Homes? Battle in Mesa, Ariz., Typifies Fears Nationwide


Though palm trees evoke an idyllic desert oasis, that's hardly the case for frustrated residents of Mesa, Ariz. That's because a "palm tree" set to be planted in the Phoenix suburb isn't what it seems: It's a camouflaged cellular tower.

In late October, the Federal Communications Commission ordered service provider AT&T to construct the now-infamous "cell phone tower palm" on a vacant lot in a residential neighborhood of East Mesa in order to fill gaps in the community's service coverage. To make the tower less obtrusive, AT&T plans to disguise it as a palm tree (like the tower pictured above) -- except that, at 70 feet tall and with no actual palms around it, it would be obvious that it's not a real tree. Residents liken the action of disguising the tower to "putting lipstick on a pig."

"We live in a residential area of one-story homes, and our nearby commercial area has buildings with a maximum height of 30 feet," David M. Brown, a six-year Mesa resident, told AOL Real Estate. "They say they want to contextualize this palm-tree tower by putting three or four actual palm trees around it. But real palm trees aren't anywhere near 70 feet tall, and [it would] take years before they'd reach that height. It would literally tower above the community."

The brouhaha in East Mesa spotlights ongoing battles around the country over the construction of cell phone towers in residential areas. Aside from cell towers being considered "eyesores," some residents and experts argue that they are dangerous. Long-term exposure to radiation from cell towers is suspected by some of causing cancer and other maladies, though the American Cancer Society says that most scientists view that as unlikely.

But any possible health risk from the cell tower has further stoked the oppostion from Mesa residents, who said they are outraged because they were given little warning or information before the plan to erect the cell phone tower was finalized. An AT&T spokesperson said, however, that the company strictly followed the City of Mesa's notification requirements. Residents received a letter in the mail from the site acquisition firm, the FM Group, on behalf of AT&T on Oct. 29 informing the community that a final decision would be reached by Nov. 13.

Due to severe backlash from residents, the vote was delayed indefinitely by the Mesa Board of Adjustment until a community meeting was to be held, currently scheduled for early December. It's a delay that gives residents more time to protest the construction of the tower -- even though many recognize the demand for better service coverage in the area.

"I do realize that AT&T needs this cell-phone tower -- we're not against the tower itself. It just doesn't need to be so close to our homes," said East Mesa resident Cory Barham, who lives about 400 yards from the site of the proposed cell tower. "Apart from the tower being so tall, we all feel that property values will go down if they build it so close. Most people I know wouldn't want to buy a house near a cell phone tower."

According to Barham and Brown, plummeting real estate values is one of the biggest concerns of East Mesa residents, and local Realtors agree.

"I would predict that the real estate market in Mesa would take quite a hit if they were to go ahead and build the tower," said Realtor Carole Wilson, who is based in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and Mesa. "So I absolutely understand the concern."

Particularly in a lower-middle-class area like East Mesa, which already has been hit hard by the housing crisis (resale home values in the area have plunged up to 60 percent), throwing an obtrusive and potentially dangerous cell tower into the mix would be like "twisting the knife," residents said.

"My feeling is that most of our community is against the building of this cell phone tower," added Barham. "We don't want it anywhere near our homes and our families."

According to the project's architect, Michael Fries, three alternative locations for the tower have been examined in the wider Mesa area, but either zoning was not possible in those locations or the owner of the lot declined to negotiate. (Story continues after the video.)

'Who Knows What's a Safe Level?'

Amid forceful community backlash, AT&T defended itself, saying that it is continually working with the East Mesa community to listen to and allay residents' concerns. AT&T has been especially focused on pacifying widespread concern regarding an alleged link between cell phone towers and diseases such as cancer. The service provider continues to reassure worried residents such as Barham that studies on the topic remain inconclusive and that all necessary health and safety regulations set by the FCC will be strictly adhered to.

"AT&T operates its networks in compliance with FCC-required emission standards," AT&T spokesman Dave Cieslak told AOL Real Estate. "And this proposed site will also be operated within FCC standards for health and safety."

But these FCC standards, according to Dr. Joel Moscowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California, are based upon findings that are both outdated and limited in scope. According to Moscowitz, the health and safety regulations implemented by the FCC are based on research conducted in 1996 and only take into account the thermal effects of "microwave radiation" disseminated by cell transmission towers. They do not take into account non-thermal effects of exposure, Moscowitz said.

"Though it's harder to make causal inferences with cell towers [versus cell phone usage], a fair amount of studies show that long-term exposure around cell towers increases the risk of health problems that are largely neurological in nature," said Moscowitz. "For example, ringing of ears, headaches, memory problems, allergy-like symptoms, increased electro-sensitivity and potentially a greater risk of cancer."

Moscowitz's conclusions have been echoed by several international studies. A recent study in Ukraine suggests that exposure to cell phone towers substantially induces cancer progression in humans:

"The carcinogenic effect ... is typically manifested after long-term exposure," the study states. "Nevertheless, even a year of operation of a powerful base transmitting station for mobile communication resulted in a dramatic increase of cancer incidence among population living nearby."

Another recent study in Germany linked cell phone base stations to a significant negative impact on sleep quality for nearby residents. Civic bodies across the world have also been wary of a link between cell phone tower exposure and health risks. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corp. in India recently banned the installation of cell phone towers near educational institutions and hospitals. (Implementing such bans is difficult in the United States, where the Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits state and local governments from regulating the placement of cell phone towers on the basis of possible health effects, if the facilities meet FCC standards for emissions).

Moscowitz warned that though there are findings that show there are no harmful effects of cell tower exposure, these can be traced back to researchers and organizations "beholden to the telecommunications industry" and that have a huge but largely hidden conflict of interest.

Despite questions surrounding the impact of cell phone towers on health, Cieslak said that AT&T still plans to move forward with the zoning process and that construction on its Mesa tower is expected to begin once a community meeting has taken place and "all government approvals have been acquired." Both the FCC and AT&T maintain that exposure to residents is at low and safe levels.

"But who knows what is a safe level?" Moscowitz asked.

A Widespread Problem

As of 2010, there were 252,000 cell towers in the U.S. alone, and the concerns over the AT&T tower in Mesa is certainly not a lone case. Over the years, residents across the country have fought proposed cell phone towers in their neighborhoods, echoing many of the same concerns as the residents of East Mesa.

In 2010, 700 El Cerrito, Calif., residents protested the construction of a proposed T-Mobile tower there. In 2011, homeowners in Eureka Springs, Ark., fought unsuccessfully to halt the construction of a 200-foot-tall Smith Communications Tower in town. And in a similar case, irate Raleigh, N.C., residents failed to stop construction of a 180-foot-tall AT&T cell phone tower "in their backyard."

Though the construction of the towers does go ahead in many places where they've caused controversy, sometimes communities do triumph over telecommunications companies.

Last year, the city of Las Cruces, Texas, shut down a request to erect a 60-foot Verizon cell-phone tower in the neighborhood. That move may or may not have been subtly influenced by an incident in which a metal "palm tree frond" fell from a cell tower in nearby El Paso and punctured the windshield of a car (pictured at left) injuring its driver. The city of Rockland, Maine, rejected a proposal to erect a 100-foot cellphone tower earlier this year. Similarly, in Belmont Shore, Calif., the Bay Shore Community Congregational Church shut down negotiations to have a cell tower installed into the bell tower of their church, despite the lure of big money for its coffers.

"There were oppositions from the local residents, particularly in homes directly surrounding the church," said Bay Shore Community Congregational's pastor, Rev. Charles Ensley. "Thus, we did not figure it was in the best interest of the community or the congregation, so construction did not go ahead."

The residents of East Mesa are hoping for a similar fate. Both Brown and Barham said that their community is not interested in engaging in a messy "David-and-Goliath" battle. They'd rather sit down and discuss options and alternatives with AT&T and the Board of Adjustment. According to Brown, East Mesa residents aren't concerned with winning against "the big, bad telecommunications giant" -- they simply want to preserve their community.

"AT&T has been helpful and kind, everyone involved has been very helpful," Brown said. "We're not looking for villains here. We're looking for solutions."