Cell phone tower sites stir a fuss

City Councillor Charles Yancey offered a strong condemnation of the lack of public process involved in the placement of cell phone antennas around the neighborhoods on Tuesday. At a City Council hearing exploring the approval process two companies took before the installation of the antennas, representatives from the city’s Public Improvement Commission testified that while all legal standards were met for the devices’ placement, only one neighborhood organization in Back Bay was consulted prior to installation.

“I think city government failed in general on a number of levels. PIC is part of it,” Yancey told the Reporter after the hearing.

“You heard from the head of neighborhood services. They were totally out of the process and it would have been natural for them to have worked with the PIC to identify at least some key organizations,” with knowledge and interest in the neighborhoods,” Yancey said.

The cell phone antennas in question are placed along city roads on public property, some disguised as light poles and others installed horizontally along power lines. Yancey called the devices a form of “visual blight” and told the panel of PIC officials and network company representatives of the numerous complaints he has received from constituents.

One letter from a constituent stated that an installation, one of approximately 70 in Dorchester, is mere feet from her home. The letter writer was concerned about the possible health effects a cellular apparatus could have on the community as well as the esthetic disturbance the pole caused.

Two companies, SBA Communications Corp. and NextG Networks, are in the process of installing 205 separate devices in Boston. SBA’s installations are located only in Back Bay, with NextG Networks responsible for the majority of the city’s sites, many of which are located in Dorchester, Roxbury and the surrounding areas.

SBA worked in conjunction with the Back Bay Architectural Commission to redesign the installations for the upper-scale shopping and residential district. The Commission has legal authority to approve projects in Back Bay.

Many of Yancey’s concerns stem from what he called a “disrespectful and counter productive” public process.

“I think that every neighborhood in Boston deserved to receive the same level of respect and consideration that Back Bay did,” Yancey said after the hearing.

The PIC and NextG defended the transparency of the permitting process, saying that public notices were placed in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald advertising the public hearings and soliciting feedback. The public notices cost the company $100,000, a NextG manager said.

Councillor Salvatore LaMattina offered his concerns regarding the health risks some say are associated with wireless devices.

“My main concern right now is the cell phone antennas. I’m concerned that they’ll be popping up all over neighborhoods like satellite dishes,” LaMattina said.

The city needs to learn what the health hazards are on these cell phone antennas, he added, responding to hearing testimony from Janet Newton, of the EMR Policy Institute, an organization advocating safety in electromagnetic radiation regulation. LaMattina hopes to schedule another hearing in the near future to explore the health issues involved with cellular installations in residential areas. LaMattina’s North End district has a growing number of cellular antennas installed on private property.

Both companies argue that their devices emit radiation well under what established FCC regulations call for.

The poles and horizontal installations are known as node locations, which serve as part of a larger distributed antenna system. The purpose of the technology, said a NextG representative, is to supplement the service areas of larger cellular carriers. The installations can serve up to four individual signal carriers. Only one company, Boost Mobile, is currently contracted to utilize the Next G antennas, but up to three more carriers could sign on to be carried by the supplemental network.

Ninety percent of the 172 antennas built by NextG are operational now, and the rest are scheduled to be ready soon. The City will annually receive either $15,000 or 5 percent of the gross revenue earned from the devices, whichever sum is larger.

Boost Mobile is a cell phone service provider that specializes in affordable no-contract pre-paid service.