A hang-up in cell antenna effort as neighbors object

By John C. Drake
Globe Staff / November 20, 2008
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The steady incursion of unsightly cellphone antennas on Boston neighborhoods is triggering a backlash among fed-up residents, and city officials are scrambling to find ways to control their spread.

The city's Zoning Board rejected a Verizon cellphone antenna for the North End this week after residents and two neighborhood associations complained that it would be ugly and mar the historic quarter. Some residents also cited unsubstantiated concerns about health effects, part of a longstanding debate over cellphone towers nationally.

The episode in the North End prompted the Zoning Board chairman to call for better installation guidelines in the city overall.

"It was an ugly installation and a bad design," Robert Shortsleeve, chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, said of the proposed unit on Charter Street, which would have been disguised as a small roof deck atop a brick apartment building.

"But there's no broader view of where there's a need or what an installation should or shouldn't look like," he said. A Verizon Wireless spokesman did not return a call for comment.

The flare-up illustrates the tensions of modern city life in an increasingly wireless age, when many young residents of the North End and other neighborhoods do not use regular phone landlines, relying exclusively on cellphones.

Cellphone companies are under pressure to improve coverage, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino has committed to speed up approvals of new antennas to reduce dead spots in the city. But residents often object to new antennas in their neighborhoods.

The economic pressures are intense. NextG Networks, a California-based telecommunications company, is installing a digital antenna system in the city with fiber-optic cables and antennas on street lights and utility poles. The company has already replaced 110 light poles in Boston and outfitted 76 wooden utility poles with digital equipment, city officials said.

In a bid to get better control, some members of the City Council are calling for a moratorium, based on lingering but unsubstantiated questions about health effects of cellphone antennas. If successful, such a moratorium would violate a federal law that specifically forbids such actions based on health concerns.

Menino does not support a moratorium, said Dorothy Joyce, his press secretary. Even without mayoral support, councilors are pressing ahead.

Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, who represents the North End, said he wants the council to quickly hold a hearing on whether the city should hold off on approving new antennas until the health effects are weighed and more rules are put in place.

"We want a hearing to get the companies in here and see why they want to put these antennas up," said LaMattina, who opposed the North End antenna. "People are making money off of these antennas, so we're going to have these all over the neighborhoods, and I don't know if there are health issues yet regarding these antennas."

Councilor Charles Yancey said some communities have become saturated with the antennas, leaving him concerned about the impact on the health of residents of Mattapan and Dorchester.

"They are just so pervasive that at some point, you have to ask whether the antennas are doing any harm to the people who live and work in the city," he said in an interview. "The government has a responsibility to ensure that the community is not being negatively impacted by these cellphone antennas."

But researchers have not said conclusively whether radio frequencies from cellphones are dangerous. In addition to the federal government's prohibition using health concerns to block cell towers, the American Cancer Society says there is no scientific evidence that cellphone antennas increase the risk of cancer.

Other cities, including Acton; Berkeley, Calif., and Eureka, Calif., have considered a ban on new antennas, citing, in part, health concerns.

Jackie McCarthy, director of government affairs for PCIA: The Wireless Infrastructure Association, said the radio frequency emissions from cell towers are no greater than those from a "microwave or baby monitor."

"I don't think it's valid to halt the development of needed services because of the review of effects that are not proven to be significant," she said.

Sanjoy Mahajan, an MIT physicist who lives next door to the site of the rejected Verizon antenna, said the potential health risks of the device were his primary concern. He said he has looked at the research himself.

"It's not certain either way, but on balance it's likely not to be that safe," he said. "For that reason, we don't think it should be near children or near the neighborhood."

Globe correspondent Richard Thompson contributed to this report. John C. Drake can be reached at

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