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Architectural Review Board Wants Better Aesthetics for Church Cell Tower

Resident concerns over adverse health impacts and lower property values ignored.

Palo Alto’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) said Thursday an improved design could win its approval for an 50-foot AT&T cellphone tower on top of property.

The board indicated it might also approve a 65-foot-stand-alone tower if the design proved more aesthetically pleasing than something on top of the church. Just last Monday, the Palo Alto to build WI-FI antennas on on University Avenue. ARB voted 4-1 to give AT&T more time to come up with a better look.

St. Albert the Great Church is at 1095 Channing Ave. in Crescent Park, in of Palo Alto’s priciest neighborhoods. The church houses a private, extended-day-care center on the premises. Last month, the planning department tentatively gave AT&T a conditional-use permit to build the cellphone tower on the church. The permit proved controversial.

The planning department's decision prompted Palo Alto resident Stephen Stuart, who lives near the church, to threaten to cut off all Internet service to the city of Palo Alto by April 14, City Manager James Keene said.

The threat sent the city scrambling for a new Internet connection, Keene said. A week later Keene received a subsequent letter from Internet Systems Consortium, an organization for which Stuart worked, giving the city more time to find an alternate Internet service provider or agree to a more “documented” relationship.

ISC provided free Internet service to the city to run the city’s website, which enables residents to pay their utility bills, Keene said. ISC also provided Internet service for the public schools and for the city’s media center, Keene said. The cost of losing the service would be in the tens of thousands of dollars, he said. Keene added, however, that the city would probably find an alternative rather quickly.

Stuart spoke at Thursday’s ARB meeting.

“A cell tower does not enhance the desirability of residence, or investment, or of living conditions on the immediate site,” Stuart said. Palo Alto real-estate professionals agree that the cellphone tower would cause diminished property values, he added. Neighbors have expressed concern about the cell tower’s hum, he said. Neighbors do not want to live with hazardous materials, batteries and the nuisance of constant maintenance he said. “Please reject this application.”

About a dozen residents spoke after Stuart, citing numerous problems and health concerns with the proposed cell tower.

Resident Tru Love said she and her friend joke that “the city of Palo Alto should rename itself ‘antennae alto’, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AT&T,” she said. “Because what the city of Palo Alto is doing to its residents is shocking, and it’s heart breaking. And quite honestly, if you don’t change your ways, mommies like me—we’re not going to buy houses in Palo Alto.”

Another resident named Rita held up a copy of the documentary, Full Signal, telling the board of the dangers from cellphone electromagnetic radiation. She said the church would receive $2,000 a month for the cell tower.

Yet another long-time resident, named Nancy, said she has a defibrillator and a pacemaker. She was told to stay away from the cell towers, she said. “They don’t know for sure what the dangers are for children,” she said. The U.S. has more lax laws about cellphones than other countries, she said.

Longtime resident John Morris said he grew up with Mass and dances at St. Albert’s. He said he felt AT&T was taking advantage of the church’s financial troubles. “The decision that the church is making is one of financial depression,” he said. “AT&T may be, in fact, taking advantage of the church and its parishioners during these difficult times,” he said. AT&T needs to be a better neighbor, he added.

ARB members seemed unconvinced by resident concerns and focused their discussion mostly on the aesthetics of the design plan.

“I do not have any wholesale objection to the idea of a tower,” board member Heather Young said. “It is more of the particular design."

Board member Alexander Lew said, “Conceptually, the idea does not bother me. I had issue with the style of the tower. Usually church towers taper. This is boxy."

Clare Malone Prichard, another board member, said, “I am not opposed to the concept of the tower on this site.” 

For board member Judith Wasserman, “It’s true AT&T coverage is notorious." She said she would prefer to see a 65-foot stand-alone tower hidden behind a tree.

Board member Lew said if the tree could go toward the back of the property, it would make sense.

Board member Grace Lee said she wanted to see more detail and a floor plan. She did not have an issue with the idea of a cell tower and wanted AT&T to make the case for either a 65-foot stand alone tower or a 50-foot mount on top of the church.

The Planning and Transportation Commission will hold a public discussion on this particular tower on May 4.

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