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[whitespace] Planners approve use permits over health objections of local residents

Saratoga--Neighbors of three proposed communications antennas came armed with concerns about radioactive emmission, but Saratoga planning commissioners, citing FCC regulations that resrict local jurisdiction in these matters, granted conditional-use permits to Cellular One, Sprint PCS and Metricom to install antennas on existing structures in the city.

The commission reviewed each application and listened to neighbors' concerns at its meeting on Oct. 13.

Cellular One will install two panel antennas about 30 feet above ground on an existing utility pole at the corner of Fruitvale Avenue and Highway 9. A 2-foot by 4-foot equipment cabinet will be placed at the base of the pole as part of the plan. The signals from the antenna will be directed at the street, not residences, according to an attorney for Cellular One.

Four property owners wrote letters to the commission saying they opposed the installation of the proposed Cellular One antennas, while 12 others signed a petition expressing the same view. However, City Attorney Jonathan Wittwer noted that even though residents claimed in the letters that the antennas would have negative effects on health and property values for nearby residents, the commission is constrained in some ways by federal law. The commission can, however, take the antenna's aesthetics into consideration.

According to the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, local jurisdictions cannot deny installation of wireless applications, like antennas, on the basis of perceived health effects as long as the companies comply with FCC health standards. All three companies comply.

"All of our goals have to do with protecting the surrounding environment," Wittwer said, "But we are bound by certain constraints."

Five Saratoga residents spoke publicly, some quite heatedly, in opposition to Cellular One's plan. And when residents brought up health effects, commissioners reminded them of the constraints.

One resident who said he was an expert in environmental health noted that if nothing else, perceived health risks from the antennas would lower the property values of surrounding houses. He said he believes that since there is no necessity or direct benefit to the neighborhood to have the antennas, and there may be negative effects, they should not be installed.

The attorney for Cellular One responded that the antennas are not likely to have any negative effects on property values and that good cellular service may in fact increase property values. He said that Cellular One adds new facilities based on market demand, not because they want to.

"[The Cellular One antenna] is within the safety standards established by the FCC and under which we operate, and aesthetically, it is very pleasing," James Walgren, community development director, said to the commission in his recommendation to approve the project. "We can't deal with who perceives what as a risk."

A majority of commission members said they were in total support of the plan.

"It complies with the law and is aesthetically appropriate," said commissioner George Roupe.

However, commissioner Lisa Kurasch, who cast the one opposing vote, said that even though there is market demand for increased cellular service now, that may change in the future and the city would be left with the antennas on its utility pole.

The commission approved Cellular One's request under the condition that appropriate landscaped screening hide the cabinet.

The commission also approved Sprint's permit to install three antenna sectors with three antennas each on an existing PG&E tower. The plan calls for several equipment cabinets to be placed under the tower and be enclosed by an 8-foot wooden fence, around which shrubs have been planted, with an irrigation system to maintain them.

Walgren said that in this case the antennas "disappear" into the existing PG&E high-tension lines, making the antennas visually unobtrusive. He added that these antennas are not near any residences, and that the landscaping around the wooden fence is an added benefit.

Sprint's use permit was unanimously approved.

"The application is compatible with the area," said Kurasch, reflecting the sentiments of the rest of the commissioners.

Metricom, a wireless Internet service provider in Los Gatos, earned the commission's blessing to install 16 panel antennas on the sides of the West Valley College theater arts building and the placement of a 64-square-foot equipment cabinet on the ground of one of the sides.

Spokesman for Metricom, Gene Zambetti, said that the slender antennas, which will be installed below the rooftop, will blend in with the building and look more like architectural detailing than antennas. He also said the cumulative emissions of all the antennas installed on the theater building are well below federal standards.

Bert Martell, a Fruitvale Avenue resident who lives near the theater building, disagreed. He spoke in opposition to the project, noting negative health effects from the antennas for nearby residents of the Odd Fellows Home, a retirement community, which is in a direct line with the antennas.

"If you get close enough, it's definitely dangerous," he said prior to the meeting in a telephone interview. "People should know what the level of radiation is."

The commission unanimously approved the Metricom use permit.
Kara Chalmers

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