For Whom Ma Bell Tolls: Church Cell-Phone Tower Gets Static From Locals

When St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Rockville Centre, N.Y., was asked last year if it would lease space on its roof for a cell-phone antenna, it seemed that heaven had answered the congregation's prayers.

The proposal looked like a win-win for both the cash-strapped church and the cellular carrier T-Mobile, which needed to patch a service "dead zone."

T-Mobile's subsidiary Omnipoint would house the antenna and related equipment inside the church's bell tower, and St. Mark's would have an additional $1,470 in its coffers each month. In November, the church took the offer and filed for a building permit with the village.

"This proposal represents an opportunity for us to maximize our resources and supply St. Mark's with badly needed funds," the church's pastor, Dr. Roger Johns, said.

But the church's letter to its neighbors alerting them of the plan, required by village zoning regulations, was met with anger and surprise.

"I have been neighbors with the church for seven years," said Eileen McHugh, whose home backs up against St. Mark's. "We always had a great relationship. We don't anymore."

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It's not the first time cellular transmitters have sparked disputes between community organizations and the residents they serve.

"As cellular service providers look to expand and improve their coverage ... they will look to not only churches, but any buildings located within that market area that are tall enough," said Anthony Guardino, a partner at the Uniondale, N.Y., law firm Farrell Fritz and a zoning-law expert who has no connection to the St. Mark's controversy.

Churches, with their steeples, bell towers and central locations, are natural candidates, and at least one company, Steeplecom, specializes in setting up such projects. It brokered the St. Mark's-Omnipoint deal and stands to get 30 percent of the carrier's $2,100 monthly rent.

Yet the very act of placing a cell antenna in a church seems to stir up special hostility.

The United Methodist Church of Medford, N.J., devotes a special section of its Web site to the brouhaha caused by its own deal with T-Mobile.

It urges its congregants and neighbors to "resist the generalistic and inflammatory claims of activists until you can make your own assessment of the facts presented."

Meanwhile, back in Rockville Centre, there's an Omnipoint antenna proposed for an apartment building a few blocks from St. Mark's. It's not getting much attention.

Can you hear me now?

On the evening of March 26, the village's Board of Zoning Appeals met to review St. Mark's application. The room was packed, and the meeting went on until nearly midnight.

Omnipoint's paid experts attested to the site's safety and positive aesthetics, while many residents spoke against the plan.

People were worried that the antenna would lower property values, that noise levels would go up and that allowing one commercial structure would open the floodgates for other companies to infiltrate residential areas.

But the one issue that came up most strongly and loudly concerned the antenna's possible health effects.

St. Mark's rents out space to a nursery school on its premises. To some parents of children there, the idea of powerful radio-frequency emissions beaming from the property where their kids play is abhorrent.

"If my child was continuing to go to that school, and the antenna went up, I would pull my child out," said Judy Tardino. "I just wouldn't take that chance."

Unfortunately for Tardino, McHugh and other opponents, municipalities can't stop a wireless carrier from siting equipment based on health concerns, according to the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

And the government and medical establishment don't seem terribly concerned as long as wireless transmitters do not exceed a certain level of radio-frequency (RF) emissions.

"In order to be exposed to RF levels near the FCC's [maximum] guidelines, an individual would essentially have to remain in the main transmitting beam and within a few feet of the antenna for several minutes or longer," states the FCC.

The FDA says the amount of RF radiation routinely encountered by the general public is too low to increase body temperature. (Microwave ovens use extremely powerful radio emissions to heat up water molecules and thus cook food.)

The American Cancer Society says "cellular phone towers are unlikely to cause cancer," pointing out that cell-phone radio waves have too little energy and wavelengths too long to alter living tissue.

Nonetheless, the amount of RF radiation that can be absorbed by the body with no health effects is an ongoing research subject, especially since there has been little inquiry into how much children can safely tolerate.

Prof. Frank Barnes, an electrical engineer at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says RF exposure has some biological effects — by changing the direction of movement of white blood cells, for instance — but admits that his results have been inconsistent.

"The quick answer is, we don't know," Barnes said. "You can see some changes in biology, but it may not be bad for you."

None of that convinces church neighbor McHugh, who has circulated petitions and written letters to local newspapers to rally opposition, using information culled from the Internet and from interviews with experts to bolster her case.

"I really care about the radiation. You don't know what the long-term effects are," she said.

Fear of the antenna is already having at least one negative effect — on real estate.

One deal in the St. Mark's area hangs on the outcome of T-Mobile's plans, according to Richard McQuillan, co-owner of Links Real Estate in Rockville Centre. If the antenna gets installed, he says, the deal's off.

"It's certainly not going to help the property value [in the neighborhood], let's put it that way," said another realtor who asked for anonymity.

To some, the whole kerfuffle smacks of a "not in my backyard" mentality.

"There's some parents that don't want it, but they are carrying cell phones," says Shirley Perri, director of St. Mark's Nursery School. "I am standing neutral here."

The next hearing on the cell-tower proposal is slated for May 21. While it's possible a compromise could be hashed out between the church and the community beforehand, officials are preparing for another big crowd.

"There will be a lot of people there. There will be a lot of discussion," predicts Frank Buccheri of the village's department of buildings. "And everyone will be heard."