Cell service is bad but towers kill? South Lake Tahoe in middle of raging debate
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Cell towers are a boiling hot topic at Lake Tahoe.
In June 2019, the South Lake Tahoe city council approved a 112-foot cell tower to be installed in the Ski Run/Needle Peak neighborhood. The council has also approved the installation of 30 small cell facilities.
They will be used by Verizon Wireless.
Since then, residents have been calling city hall and attending city council meetings begging councilors to prevent the tower and boxes from being installed.
One resident, Monica Eisenstecken, has appealed the tower’s placement. That appeal will be heard in January 2020.
In the meantime, residents have asked the city to draft a new ordinance that would prevent towers and boxes from being placed in residential areas.
Former South Lake Tahoe City Manager David Jinkins has been leading the charge to get a new ordinance put in place. He regularly attends city council meetings and communicates with the public on the topic.
“We’re all in favor of improving telecommunications,” Jinkins said. “We want the city to adopt a cell tower ordinance. It gives reassurance to residents in this environmentally sensitive area that you can’t just put anything in peoples’ front yards.”
At a council meeting in October, many residents asked councilors to adopt an emergency ordinance.
“My public trust has been eroded by the secrecy and quickness of this happening,” resident Heather Kovac said to council.
However, when the tower and boxes were approved, they were done in accordance with the regulations that were in place at the time, and currently still are.
“Any new ordinance will not apply to the ones already approved,” City Manager Frank Rush said.
The city’s attorney, Heather Stroud, has also said the approved applications met the standards put in place by the ordinances that city already had.
“We are following the law and we will continue to follow the law,” Stroud said.
Although their hands are tied in regards to the already approved applications, the city is trying to repair relationships with residents. Rush is working to write a new ordinance that will apply to future applications.
“We are listening intently to the concerns of the citizens,” Rush said. “We will be purposely reaching out to the industry to see what is feasible and put together a thoughtful ordinance.”
Rush hopes to have a draft of the ordinance to present at the Dec. 12 planning commission meeting.
As for the current cell tower, Rush has been working with Verizon to possibly find a new location.
However, finding the perfect location for a cell tower in South Lake Tahoe is difficult. Topography of the area, landowners, closeness to the lake and other factors are considered when choosing a spot.
Verizon has ruled out all other locations except for one undisclosed location.
If that location is not feasible, “the appeal hearing will move forward in January and it would be up to the city council to either or deny the appeal,” Rush said. But added that he is hopeful that finding an alternate site will be successful.
A concern many residents have brought up is the negative impact the tower and small cell boxes will have on the feel and value of the neighborhood. People who live in that area say the boxes and the tower will take away from the view and personality of the neighborhood.
Residents, Cordelia and Steven Veit-Carey expressed their concern to the city council during an October meeting.
Cordelia Veit-Carey told the council the tower will ruin the view and house values are already dropping.
“The cell boxes are not silent and heat is radiating off the box,” Steven Veit-Carey also told the council.
Aaron Wilson, lead agent for the Tahoe-Truckee Redfin office, said he thinks the large cell-tower might have a positive impact on home values.
“People prefer to have good cell service and connectivity,” Wilson said.
He added that a lot of his clients come from the Bay Area and need to be able to work from home, so bad cell-service can be a deterrent.
As far as the small cell boxes, Wilson said he imagines those could have a negative impact on home value although he doesn’t have exact numbers. He also said the impact depends on where they are placed on the property and if they are taking up useful space.
Another top concern are health risks. Do the towers cause cancer? Are they safe? Lots of questions, not a lot of clarity.
Cell towers work using radio frequency power that is transmitted between antennas. According to the FCC, they allow up to 500 watts of effective radiated power to be emitted but the towers in the suburban areas usually operate at 100 watts ERP or less.
“Measurements made near typical cellular and (personal communication) cell sites have shown that ground-level power densities are well below the exposure limits recommended by RF/microwave safety standards used by the FCC,” the FCC’s website states.
A group, calling themselves Concerned Citizens of South Lake Tahoe have sent several emails to the city with concerns about cell towers causing cancer.
According to the FCC, “calculations corresponding to a “worst-case” situation (all transmitters operating simultaneously and continuously at the maximum licensed power) show that, in order to be exposed to RF levels near the FCC’s guidelines, an individual would essentially have to remain in the main transmitting beam and within a few feet of the antenna for several minutes or longer. Thus, the possibility that a member of the general public could be exposed to RF levels in excess of the FCC guidelines is extremely remote.”
The city said as long as the cell towers comply with the FCC’s standards, they can’t legally deny applications based on the grounds of health.
“Few definitive human studies between cancer and cell towers have been done,” said El Dorado County Public Health Officer, Dr. Nancy Williams, in an email. She pointed to the American Cancer Society website, that states “at this time, there is very little evidence to support this idea” (that cell towers cause cancer or other health problems).
“Several studies have looked for a possible relationship between cellular telephone use and the development of cancer; the data is not conclusive,” Barton Health’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Matthew Wonnacott, said in an email.
“Barton views cell service and connectivity as essential infrastructure for the safety and care of the community,” Wonnacott also said, “Barton’s communications with team members, physicians, and patients are reliant upon access to a stable and consistent infrastructure that includes dependable cell service. Improving reliability of local cellular networks would help daily access and connectivity, as well as bolstering emergency communications.”
Almost everyone can agree that cell service is bad in South Lake Tahoe. Without good cell service, the community is in higher danger during an emergency.
Barton is not the only one concerned about emergency communications,
Dr. Graham Kent, Director of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory and Professor of Geological Sciences and Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno, also worries about the area’s ability to deal with an emergency.
Kent works with ALERTTahoe, a series of cameras set up around the basin which allows first responders to get up-to-date information about wildfires or other natural disasters.
Kent said the government has decided to use a cell phone based alert system.
“I’m not sure that was the smartest decision, but it was a decision that was made and so now, if there’s a large fire or major event like an earthquake … where you have to move people quickly, they all need to have cell service in the Tahoe Basin or people are not going to get the message,” Kent said.
Safety concerns aren’t the only reason to improve telecommunications. Heidi Hill-Drum, Chief Executive Officer of Tahoe Prosperity Center, said the city needs better service in order to make economic improvements.
In a 2010 Basin Prosperity Plan, expanded broadband infrastructure was flagged as important component of economic development.
“In today’s society with hospitals utilizing electronic medical records and business using paypal and swipers and all those other things and being able to remote work anywhere in the world… it was identified as a primary need in the community because there are so many areas that are underserved,” Hill-Drum said.
Hill-Drum also points out that many tourist attractions rely on cell service and the influx of people during busy seasons significantly slows down already slow service.
“My vision for our community is one where people who want to live work and play here can do so easily and if we don’t have expanded cell phone coverage,” Hill-Drum said. “If we don’t have expanded broadband, that vision won’t come to fruition.”