Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Vote delayed on antennas near San Rafael's Ecology House
Jennifer UpshawPosted: 01/13/2009 09:32:12 PM PST

Connie Barker lives in Ecology House in San Rafael, an apartment building for those with chemical sensitivities. She says that cell phone antennas are scheduled for installation on the power line tower that can be seen in the background. Barker and others in the apartment complex oppose the proposal. (IJ photo/Frankie Frost)

The San Rafael Planning Commission, citing the need for additional information, pushed off a decision Tuesday on a plan to place cell phone antennas near housing for chemically sensitive people.

The commission heard an appeal of a zoning administrator decision to allow Verizon Wireless to install six panel antennas on an existing Pacific Gas & Electric Co. lattice tower on the 100 block of Windward Way in east San Rafael.

Commissioners said they wouldn't vote on the appeal until they learned more about alternative sites. Another hearing date has not yet been set.

"It just doesn't pass the gut check for me," Commissioner Kate Colin said.

The tower is 420 feet from an 11-unit affordable housing development at 375 Catalina Blvd. called Ecology House. The complex, built in 1994 and funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was designed for people with chemical sensitivities and is the only development of its kind in the nation.

Preempted by the Federal Communications Commission, city officials are barred from considering environmental effects of radio frequency emissions. Opponents argued that environmental and health effects were separate issues.

Verizon officials said the wireless provider looked around but could find no better site.

"I understand the concerns but we have looked at other locations," spokesman Clarence Chavis said. "This is the location that we feel can meet Verizon's objectives. ... We believe this is the location that is best to move forward."

Connie Barker, vice president of Ecology House, argued that the proposal threatens the economic viability of the development.

"A lot of us may be made functionally homeless by this," she said. "We see the issue as being the viability of our business."

Barker, who said she loved her Verizon cell phone and global-positioning features, said she knew it was a difficult dilemma for the city.

"I'm not against the technology - I understand the preemption situation puts you all in a really tough decision," Barker said. "We are asking you to do something that would invite a legal challenge."

"I would still ask you to do it because it's the right thing," she added.

Sarah Reilly, a Fairfax nutritionist, appealed to the commission to reconsider, saying she had experienced chemical and electrical sensitivities.

"This is a very, very real situation - what's at hand is real," she said. "This is a scary situation for people. You can't see it, most people can't feel it, but it's impacting most of us."

Ginger Souders-Mason, an environmental activist from Kentfield, said the complex needed to be preserved as a unique refuge.

"I have some very, very dear friends who live at Ecology House and I've seen them struggle," she said. "For some of them, this is the only place they can live.

"Their health is in your hands right now."