Numerous residents last Wednesday listened to hours upon hours of testimony as three notable wireless phone companies presented their case as to why the Village of Mineola should allow cellular phone antennas to be affixed to three existing structures in the village. However, residents may have been disheartened to learn that the applications to the village board may be just a formality.
Residents attending these hearings have made their voices heard. They do not want to live near cellular phone antennas, which companies are putting up to improve their service to customers. They do not feel safe with significant rates of cancer already documented on Long Island. They fear what is unknown about wireless technology.
However, residents cannot simply object to the board of trustees they have elected. Under normal circumstances, the board could listen to testimony and reject the applications in the best interests of the residents. However, looming over the village like a dark cloud is the Telecommunications Act of 1996, specifically section 704.
That law, enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), states that "no state or local government or instrumentality thereof may regulate the placement, construction, and modification or personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the commission's regulations concerning such emissions."
During the public hearings on the cellular phone antennas, residents listened as Verizon's or Sprint's or Nextel's experts testify that their antennas will not pose any threat to the environment, the health and safety of the residents in the surrounding area or the aesthetic look of the neighborhood. The real dilemma is, however, that the village's residents have a hard time trusting the testimony of consultants and engineers who are all on the cell phone providers' payroll.
Last Wednesday, the village board continued a hearing for a Verizon application to erect nine antennas on a LIPA tower located at Betty Lane. The village also heard an application for Nextel to erect 12 antennas at 393 Jericho Turnpike on a structure that is privately owned and 12 more on a KeySpan building at 250 Old Country Road while lowering the antennas on Maple Place from 115 feet to 75 feet. Then, the village heard a hearing for a Sprint application to erect nine antennas, also on 250 Old Country Road.
It seems almost certain that the board would deny these applications. Mineola resident Sal Cataldo asked Mayor John P. Colbert if village hall was the next building to support antennas on the roof. Mayor Colbert responded by saying, "Over my dead body."
However, attorneys for the cell phone companies have made it clear that the village is prohibited from rejecting the applications based on health reasons or that the waves may cause interference to other frequencies. Even, village attorney John Spellman acknowledged that the FCC has jurisdiction over these two conditions. "Radio frequency and environmental issues will not sustain the village," he said.
Attorney for Nextel Lawrence C. Ré said that when villages or towns have rejected applications, actions have brought against those villages and towns to overrule their decisions.
Possible reasons to deny an application involve aesthetic issues or the proximity of the location. One concern brought out during the hearing is that the Nextel's and Sprint's plans involved putting cell phone antennas at 250 Old Country Road, a building next to Winthrop-University Hospital's soon-to-be radiology and oncology facility. The cell phone companies witnesses testified, however, that the waves would not affect the facility and would have minimal impact on the look of the neighborhoods in which they will be situated.
The cell phone antenna dilemma in Mineola is not a unique one. In an article which appeared in the Autumn 1998 issue of Orion Afield, author B. Blake Levitt, a former New York Times writer who authored Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer's Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves, addressed the issue.
"Zoning officials today are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to siting cellular-phone towers or other antenna installations mounted on, or in, pre-existing buildings," Levitt wrote.
"When industry engineers show up to present applications for installation, they liken their technology to remote-control devices, such as garage-door openers or TV remote controls. They say that the power density 100 feet from antennas is equivalent to that of these familiar devices, pointing out that power density decreases rapidly with distance from the antenna. But density is in only one factor of radio-wave propagation among several variables that determine safety," the article goes on to say.
"Industry representatives also point out that the RF emissions of cellular towers are far below federal standards, which they often are. They liken the power output of the technology to 100 and even 25-watt light bulbs, hoping to assuage people's fears with familiar comparisons. What they leave out is that 100 watts is the power output per channel, and one antenna may host dozens of channels. As user demand increases, the channels can be split. Plus, unlike 60-hertz light bulbs, these installations function in the microwave, UHF bands, where questions about safety go back to the 1940's and remain unanswered today," Ms. Levitt writes. "Clearly, the situation is not as simple as the telecommunications industry would have us believe. They continue to push at the federal level for pre-emption of local rights."
Despite the disagreement as to whether cell phone antennas are safe, it seems the cellular phone companies have their hearts set on certain locations in Mineola to eliminate gaps of service that will give their customers better service and will continue the push even though residents have objected vehemently.
Although these companies have had a consultant testify that the antennas post no safety hazards, some of the residents in those areas are not so sure as they say they are being forced to live near something they don't want.
Walter Crosby, an ex-fire chief of the Mineola Fire Department and a resident of Maple Place, said it is the effects of the unknown that have him concerned. In his years on Maple Place, the location of other Nextel antennas, he watched as 11 of his neighbors succumbed to cancer. Mr. Crosby now has petitions circulating to stop more antennas from being installed. "My petitions will continue until I have every person in this village against this," he said.
However, residents as well as the village board may not be necessarily fighting cellular phone companies as much as the Telecommunications Act, which, in essence, is allowing the antennas to be installed. "They bargained our rights away. We were sold out," said Mr. Cataldo, who is the commander of Mineola American Legion Post, referring to lawmakers who enacted the law.
For now, the village board reserved decision on each of the three hearings, which is just about the only action it could take at this point.