Several Santa Barbara residents are voicing concerns over the installation of small cell wireless facilities near their homes, urging local officials to use whatever power is available to slow site developers from expanding the new technology in residential areas.
The proposed small cell wireless facilities are the newest development in the latest wireless innovation boom. The technology builds upon existing 4G infrastructure to install what developers say is the next level in wireless connectivity — 5G. Though 5G is still under development by cell carriers, the small cell facilities pave the way for the new technology to be deployed once it is finalized.
While developers do acknowledge that wireless installations radiate electromagnetic and radio frequencies, telecommunication officials say the radiation emissions are under control and safe to the general public based on regulations set by the Federal Communications Commission.
However, community members across Santa Barbara are raising concerns over the potential impacts of consistent exposure to RF from the wireless facilities.
Sage Shingle, a Santa Barbara resident who lives on Arroyo Road, is opposing the installation of a small cell wireless facility on a telephone pole that is 15 feet from his bedroom. His main concern centers on the unknown health impacts of being in close proximity to RF emitting from the facility.
“I think that the concern maybe is that over the years we’ve come up with this new, latest and greatest thing, and in the long term, we’ll realize, oh maybe that wasn’t the greatest for us from a health perspective,” Mr. Shingle told the News-Press. “And so that’s kind of the concern. I think a concern for me is certainly (that) this (technology) hasn’t been around for a long time. And we don’t want to be the guinea pigs.”
Mr. Shingle is not alone in his concerns. A number of other community members share this same hesitation and concern over the potential and unknown health impacts of RF exposure.
Alec Chambers is a Santa Barbara resident who lives on Ben Lomond Drive, where site developer Crown Castle has proposed the installation of a small cell wireless facility. The wireless device, if approved and permitted by the county, would sit about 40 feet from Mr. Chamber’s second-story office window where he works for most of his day.
“My concern is the level of signal and the possible health effects,” Mr. Chambers said. “I’m a kidney transplant recipient, I’m on immune suppressants for life. And I don’t know for sure what kind of connection there might be, but it concerns me.”
The health impacts of cell towers is highly contested and debated among medical experts, scientists and telecommunication giants. The FCC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization agree that there are not currently any adverse effects tied to wireless device use and exposure. Crown Castle, the site developer in charge of installing small cell wireless facilities in Santa Barbara, utilizes evidence from the FDA and FCC to verify the safety of their devices.
However, some national organizations say more evidence is needed.
A statement on the American Cancer Website reads, “there’s no strong evidence that exposure to RF waves from cell phone towers causes any noticeable health effects. However, this does not mean that the RF waves from cell phone towers have been proven to be absolutely safe. Most expert organizations agree that more research is needed to help clarify this, especially for any possible long-term effects.”
Though many governmental organizations say there are no adverse effects currently known, others raise concerns over the validity of these claims.
According to Miriam Lindbeck, the president of SafeTech Santa Barbara County, radio waves emitted from wireless technology can cause neurological issues, exacerbate existing conditions and contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Electromagnetic frequency scientists and experts are also raising concerns over the potential impacts. In a 2019 appeal to the United Nations, a group of 247 EMF scientists signed a statement that claimed EMF exposure that is well under international and national guidelines can increase cancer risk, cause damage to reproductive systems, create learning and memory deficits and have “negative impacts on general well-being in humans.”
Aside from the contested health impacts, residents are also posing questions over the validity of evidence presented by site developer Crown Castle about the true RF emissions coming from their devices.
While multiple residents have voiced concerns over health impacts from the devices, others have raised concern over the impact the devices could have on property value.
Alan Gallegos, a resident who lives on Ben Lomond Drive, is urging the county to request an alternate site analysis for a proposed small cell wireless facility that would be installed on an existing telephone pole at the edge of his property. Mr. Gallegos is primarily concerned about how it would impact the value of his home as well as the aesthetic impact on the neighborhood.
“I’ve been told by real estate professionals that if you had this exact house somewhere else, or side by side, and one had an antenna and one didn’t, the value would be more for the one that doesn’t have an antenna,” Mr. Gallegos told the News-Press. “And they are 100% adamant about that. So devaluation is occurring.”
While residents have continuously voiced these concerns to the county, many are feeling their concerns are not being taken into account by the county or by Crown Castle.
“There’s this feeling of helplessness … There’s no real consideration of the community with regard to placing towers for the (wireless) facility,” Mr. Shingle said.
As the federal law stands, local jurisdictions are limited on what they can do to prevent the placement of small cell wireless facilities in certain areas so long as companies are following FCC regulations, Lisa Plowman, the director of the county Planning and Development Department, told the News-Press by phone on Friday.
“We have limitations that are imposed on us by the Federal Communications Commission,” Ms. Plowman said. “We don’t have the ability to control those in terms of where they’re located. We can’t tell them that they have to move.”
Essentially, the main recommendation county officials are giving residents is to appear before the county’s South Board of Architectural Review in a meeting May 7 and voice their concerns in a final meeting before the board will decide whether or not to award permits for the small cell projects.
However, SBAR is responsible for aesthetic considerations when overviewing the permitting process and does not take health considerations into their decision making, according to Joseph Dargel, the supervising planner for the county Planning and Development Department.
“(SBAR) is an aesthetics review board. So they do have the ability to apply aesthetics comments in order to make sure that the projects are compatible with the neighborhood from an aesthetics point of view,” Mr. Dargel said. “That does give them the ability to ask for alternative sites so to look at different sites to see which sites are most appropriate for an area.”
In response to a News-Press request for comment inquiring whether Crown Castle would consider alternate sites for the proposed small cell facilities, officials responded that the decision was primarily made to fill gaps in service coverage.
“Crown Castle carefully considered the placement of our small cells in Santa Barbara, including input from Santa Barbara County, as well as federal, state and local law and ordinances,” Scott Longhurst, government affairs manager said in a statement to the News-Press. “The locations ultimately chosen will address coverage and capacity gaps with the least significant impact by using existing infrastructure, as was the case at Arroyo Road and Ben Lomond. Our small cells are typically installed on existing right of way infrastructure, such as streetlights or utility poles.”
Though the review board only takes aesthetic considerations into their decision making and the county says they are unable to halt the wireless expansion based on FCC guidelines, the city of Santa Barbara is currently working on an ordinance that would give them as much local control as possible over the upcoming 5G rollout.
The city has drafted an ordinance that includes a section listing preferred and nonpreferred locations for the installation of small cell wireless facilities. Preferred areas include industrial zones and areas near Highway 101, while nonpreferred zones include residential neighborhoods, schools and hospitals, John Doimas, assistant city attorney, told the News-Press.
“We recognize that federal law preempts a lot of this, so we wanted to have an ordinance that gave the city the greatest local control it could have,” Mr. Doimas said.
He added, “We’re not taking (the health concerns) lightly, and that’s why we created the preferred locations.”
In addition to the preferred and nonpreferred areas, the ordinance would also require wireless companies to provide an independent review for proof that new facilities are needed in areas near public parks, schools and hospitals.
The ordinance is currently in the review stages, and the city is hoping to have a draft to review at the beginning of May, Mr. Doimas said.