I live in an area of Palo Alto with really bad AT&T cellular service, which is a problem because my daughter’s iPhone gets spotty coverage and because I sometimes review cell phones and other devices that run on the AT&T network and have to test them elsewhere to get a strong signal.
So, like some of my neighbors, I was initially pleased when I heard that AT&T was planning to build a cell tower somewhere near my home. Until, that is, my wife informed me that it might be in the form of a 75-foot-tall fake tree just behind our backyard.
It turns out that the nonprofit Eichler Swim and Tennis Club, which is just across a narrow creek from our yard, had agreed to let AT&T erect the tower in exchange for $20,000 a year, which comes to $67 for each of its 300 members.
Based on the plans we’ve seen, it would dominate the view from our bedroom and backyard. My wife Patti is up in arms and so are several of our neighbors.
They’re not alone. Faced with the prospect of a fake tree looming over our back fence, I’ve become a “NIMBY.”
Short for “not in my backyard,” NIMBYs are people who want the benefits of some type of facility — like power plants, garbage dumps or cell towers — but want them located in someone else’s backyard. I’ve always thought of NIMBYs as a bit selfish. Vital facilities have to be placed somewhere, and why should certain people get to avoid having them in their neighborhood just because
But in this case, there’s no need to put the cell tower in any residential neighborhood. There are commercial and light industrial areas close enough to provide excellent coverage that are not in the immediate vicinity of homes or schools.
We’re former members of the Eichler club and have always considered it a welcome part of our neighborhood. When we moved here, we knew we would hear the sounds of families swimming and playing tennis and we were OK with that. We even gladly put up with noisy early morning swim meets and occasional cars parked in front of our house because we support family recreation.
But when the city issued a use permit for the facility back in 1958, it was for recreational use between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., not for transmitting radio signals 24 hours a day. In 1960, the city ruled that the club’s swimming pool couldn’t be used by a private swim instructor because that “commercial enterprise” violated its use permit. If it’s not OK for a “commercial” swimming teacher to give lessons in the nonprofit club’s pool, why would it be OK for a giant corporation to erect a cell tower on its grounds?
Unlike some of my neighbors, who fear the electromagnetic field generated by a cell tower, I’m not convinced that living near one is dangerous to people’s health. But several people in the area have expressed concern that the tower would be less than 600 feet from Palo Verde Elementary School. They worry that the electromagnetic radiation from the antenna could have long-term negative effects on the health of the school children and nearby residents, and point to studies that suggest such dangers.
A neighborhood website, www.StopFakeTree.org, links to articles suggesting that living near a cell tower can cause sleep disturbances, headaches, difficulty concentrating, depression, memory loss, irritability, skin problems and dizziness.
The Federal Communications Commission’s website disputes that evidence, saying “there is no reason to believe that such towers could constitute a potential health hazard to nearby residents or students.” And a 2002 report from the World Health Organization states that “exposure is far higher for mobile phone users than for those living near cellular base stations.” However, it points out that “base stations are continuously transmitting signals,” so people who live nearby are getting low levels of exposure 24 hours a day.
Even though I’m not prepared to argue that the tower would be dangerous, it seems to me it would be better not to have one in the middle of a residential neighborhood, especially if there are other nearby suitable locations.
Health issues aside, there are other reasons to object to the erection of a tall fake tree in a residential neighborhood. A 75-foot-tall tower (or maybe 65 feet, depending on interpretation of local ordinances) would be an eyesore, and that’s reason enough to complain.
Of course, it could be argued that a 75-foot-tall fake tree fits in perfectly with the spirit of a city whose name in Spanish means “Tall Tree.” If they do build the tower, maybe the city should be renamed “Palo Falso.”