Thursday, December 13, 2001
(photo) TeleCommunion: The new steeple at the First Baptist Church in Monterey contains state-of-the-art cellphone equipment. A Monterey Pine tree behind The Presidio barely disguises another celltower.
It would have been quite a cross. Six-feet tall and golden in color, the shiny fixture would replace a spire that has long adorned the First Baptist Church in New Monterey. And it was to be more than a hollow ornament. This big new cross would be packed with sophisticated cellular telephone antennas to serve mobile phone users on the New Monterey side of the Peninsula.
"I was hoping to have a cross," says Pastor Nathan Rehn, as he sits in his office. Scattered around the floor and furniture are powertools and other carpentry gear. Rehn, a tall and friendly man, has been building the scenery for the annual Christmas pageant.
As Rehn has been working in the church during the week, so too have work crews from a cell-phone antenna installation company. They''ve got ladders up on the roof and a portable generator in the alley.
The crews aren''t bolting the golden cross up top. Back when the plan was under review with the city, a citizen objected to the crucifix''s size. After a hearing, the Monterey Architectural Review Committee agreed.
"I guess one of our neighbors said ''Golly gee that''s a big cross''," says Rehn.
Instead, the cross that''s now on top of the church is only two feet tall and stands on a tapered steeple. All the gear is stuffed into the steeple. The cross is barely visible from the street.
Rehn''s new edifice is just one of many sprouting up around the area. On municipal agendas all over the county, cell-tower issues abound. Like anything that has to be built, cell towers need to be reviewed for safety and aesthetics. On planning agendas from Del Ray Oaks to Pacific Grove, applications for wireless installations are tucked between items about sidewalks and bus stops.
Each cell tower proposal gets attention as a separate "action item" at public meetings throughout the county. Monterey and Marina are taking a step back and writing cell-tower ordinances. But there''s only so much they can do.
According to the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, cities can''t say no to cell towers. Local zoning rules apply, but governments are forbidden to ban cell towers under the premise that citizens can''t be denied wireless service.
Meribeth McCarrick at the Federal Communication Commission''s (FCC) Wireless Bureau in Washington, DC says more readily available frequencies have fostered cellphone growth and thus the need for more towers.
"As the FCC began auctioning wireless spectrum in 1994, companies are continuing to build out their services so consumers can continue to have uninterrupted service," she says. "Wireless subscription is continuing to increase."
For that reason, Marina has is working on design guidelines for cell towers. A moratorium on approval of additional cell towers was considered by the planning commission in late November but not adopted. Also prompted by the sheer volume of cell tower proposals, Monterey has formed an ad hoc cell tower committee to rewrite the city''s existing ordinance. The body will make a recommendation to the Monterey City Council in January. (Cities collect the usual permitting fees for cell towers, unless the deal includes installation on city property, in which case rent is also charged.)
Rick Marvin, a senior planner for Monterey, says the utmost concern is how cell towers look. The golden cross-antenna proposed for the top of the First Baptist Church was rejected because of its scale. The Architectural Review Committee was unanimous in its disapproval. Marvin''s confident of the design now in place.
Undisguised cell towers can be downright ugly. Look around and you might see a contraption up on some hillside that looks like a strange aluminum wind chime that doubles as a laundry rack. To diminish the offensive appearance, cell towers are often camouflaged as trees, strapped to water towers or sandwiched into billboards. An attempt to hide a cell antenna atop the Holman Building in Pacific Grove prompted one resident to tell the local daily newspaper it looked like a beacon for a starship.
Besides looks, human health is a factor with cell towers. According to the FCC, "Tissue damage in humans could occur during exposure to high RF [radio frequency] levels because of the body''s inability to cope with or dissipate the excessive heat that could be generated." Results of testing, however, are described as "inconclusive."
Concentrated radio frequency energy just might have the same effect on a human as a microwave oven on a piece of lasagna. Municipalities don''t want a cell antenna hooked up to anyplace people spend a lot of time.
Pastor Rehn is aware of the possible risks as well as the rewards. His church is being paid a few thousand dollars annually by Sprint and Cingular to allow the antenna on the steeple and the heavier devices in the basement. He won''t give an exact figure, but says it''s enough to pay a part-time employee for a year.
"This is very, very, very big business and there''s a lot of people with a little bit of the pie," Rehn says.
He''s not afraid of any suspicious radio waves being attracted to his church and office. "I''m here all the time but I''m not up there," he says, pointing up to the steeple.