By Melissa Pamer Staff Writer | Daily Breeze
|Bill Korakis is one of many concerned parents and residents opposed to new T-Mobile cell phone tower at the left is on Westmont Drive less than 100 feet from Taper Elementary School in San Pedro. (Robert Casillas Staff Photographer)
November 15, 2009 -- When unmarked white trucks showed up several weeks ago to do work next to Westmont Drive in San Pedro, neighborhood residents didn't think much of it.
The workers said they were contractors but were evasive about what exactly they were doing, the residents said.
Then, after a trench was cut in the recently resurfaced street and utility boxes installed, a new array of T-Mobile cell phone antennas appeared suddenly overhead, looming on a utility pole behind Ken Kato's manicured yard.
"I'm getting ready to retire, and that was my solace, sitting in the backyard. Now, I don't even want to go in the backyard any more. It's such an ugly looking thing," Kato said of the installation.
Mild neighborhood curiosity about the construction work turned overnight into fury, motivated in part by the fear of potential health effects from radiation coming off the antenna.
Parents at Taper Elementary School, just across the street, were particularly upset, partly because the school's raised playground brings it closer to the level of the antennas. About 75 of them turned out at a meeting at the school last week.
Now, with the backing of Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn and officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District, which moved earlier this year to oppose the erection of cell towers near schools, the parents are planning a battle to get the antennas removed.
"This is going to be a precedent-setting fight," said Bill Korakis, who has three children at the school. "T-Mobile is going to have a hard time selling anything around here. It's a slap in the face."
But there isn't much residents - or the school district - can do to prevent cellular equipment from going up, even if they had known about it beforehand.
That realization of powerlessness is occurring all over the country as increasing demand for wireless services is causing cell- phone providers to rapidly expand into residential areas.
"It's a global issue. These fights are taking place everywhere," said Doug Loranger, a spokesman for a new nationwide group called CLOUT, Coalition for Local Oversight of Utility Technologies.
Recent court rulings have affirmed the rights of cities to regulate cellular installations on aesthetic grounds - notably in a lawsuit that Palos Verdes Estates won on appeal last month.
But federal communications law prohibits local governments from relying on health reasons for regulation.
The Federal Communications Commission is set to vote Wednesday on a request from the wireless industry to make clear the precedence of federal law over state and local codes on the placement of towers and transmitters.
On its Web site, the FCC states that cellular antennas produce "exposure levels on the ground that are typically thousands of times below safety limits," and that studies on human-health effects from radio-frequency radiation are inconclusive.
Nonetheless, numerous local governments - including the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors - have called on the FCC to allow limits on cellular equipment because of health concerns.
In May, the LAUSD Board of Education passed a resolution citing possible health effects, opposing cell sites near schools and asking local jurisdictions to notify the district about proposed installations and their potential health risks.
"All we wanted was an opportunity to say 'No,"' said Richard Vladovic, who represents San Pedro on the board and lives close to Taper Elementary.
Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes Westchester, has asked for a report on whether the city can strengthen its regulations on the basis of recent court rulings.
Hahn said she supports that, and also plans to ask for a re- evaluation of the city's membership in the Southern California Joint Pole Committee, an obscure group that lets municipalities and utilities share use of power poles - an arrangement that eased T- Mobile's installation on a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power pole.
LAUSD officials said they were irked that the DWP did not notify them of the pending installation.
But they did get a notice from the city on the project.
Notification of a city permit to install power boxes was sent in June to Kato and other neighbors, as well as to Hahn's office and LAUSD headquarters.
The city letter referred to an "Above Ground Facility within the public right-of-way near your property," later stating T-Mobile was the applicant.
There was no reference to cell-phone equipment, and a 14-day appeal period passed with no complaint.
"They followed the letter of the law but they really were disingenuous. Everything they did was in the stealth of the night," Vladovic said of T-Mobile, adding that he is encouraging others to boycott the company.
Vladovic, residents and parents have questioned why T-Mobile didn't locate its antenna at the nearby Home Depot or Target, or on the Gaffey Street commercial and industrial corridor that is a third of a mile east of the school.
A T-Mobile representative said multiple sites were considered and the Westmont location was selected because it is "tall enough, without obstructions, to maximize coverage in this neighborhood."
Rod De La Rosa, a company spokesman, said in a statement that T- Mobile followed relevant local guidelines and federal policy on health concerns.
"T-Mobile antennas operate well within national safety guidelines established by the federal government," De La Rosa wrote. "At this location, the antennas are pointed east and west toward the horizon because of coverage needs. Taper Elementary School is to the south."
Regardless, parents and officials said they hope to pressure T- Mobile into moving its antennas away from the school.
"If they get away with it here and the cell-phone tower stays up, it's kind of open season to expand and do it anywhere," said LAUSD Local District 8 Superintendent Linda Del Cueto. "There had to have been other places they could put it."