Column: 'It's Time to Erase Albany's Cell Tower Color Line'

Albany Patch welcomes guest columns and letters to the editor via email at albany@patch.com. Click the "Keep me posted" button below this story for an email alert when we post about cell coverage in town.

At the most recent City Council meeting, the at 1035 San Pablo Ave. As an alternative, the council indulged in some vague discussion of another site at the .

In my allotted three minutes at the microphone, I urged the City Council not to follow a policy of pushing cell towers further west into “the colored folk's neighborhood.” While that sounds like harsh language, I meant exactly what I said, and I’ve created a map to show you why I said it. The map is attached here.

I started with the official zoning map of Albany, which you can download from the city’s website. I converted it to B&W and lightened it in Photoshop, and then added my own shading. The white areas on my map are single family residential neighborhoods. The brown areas are all the other denser residential neighborhoods. 

According to the census data, also available on the city’s website, the white areas on my map are disproportionately of white ethnicity, while the brown areas are the neighborhoods in Albany that are disproportionately non-white. According to U.S. Census data, the higher-density neighborhoods also tend to be lower-income. 

The purple areas are the areas where cell base stations are allowed under Albany’s current cell ordinance. These include the San Pablo Commercial Area and the CMX commercial mixed use zones. The Solano commercial area is a little more complicated. Especially on its western end, it contains several apartment buildings and has similar demographics to the denser lower-income neighborhoods on the other side of San Pablo Ave.

The red dots are existing cell base stations (there are 10), and the three green dots are recently proposed cell base stations, including the site at 1035 San Pablo opposite . The 1035 site was the one was voted down in City Council by a 3-2 vote, with council members Atkinson, Lieber and Wile voting against the AT&T proposal.

The cell tower issue has brought back something I thought I would never see again in Albany—the color line. When it comes to cell tower location, there is a distinct color line. All of the existing towers (except one cluster of three red dots) and all of the proposed sites (the green dots) are west of the San Pablo corridor.

Meanwhile, the east side of town is remarkably free of cell towers. That’s no accident. According to the advocates of Albany’s existing cell ordinance, which was championed by Lieber and whose members apparently include Atkinson and Wile, Albany’s relatively affluent white homeowners should be spared the indignity of living near cell towers. Cell towers , down in the colored folk's neighborhood.

Part of what drives this bigotry is sheer scientific ignorance. Many people in Albany mistakenly believe that living near a cell tower will cause cancer. There is no credible scientific evidence for this belief. There is much better evidence that using a cell phone too far from a tower is a bad idea. Public health experts suspect rural people suffer higher risks of tumors of the brain, ear and salivary glands from using cell phones far from towers. The further you are away from a cell tower, the more energy your phone has to put out to communicate with the tower. Much of that extra energy is absorbed by your head at much higher levels than the relatively weak signals from either cell towers or broadcast towers (AM, FM, digital TV, etc).

But all this is lost on council members Atkinson, Lieber and Wile. Although they have been charged with making decisions on cell tower technology in Albany, they seem willfully ignorant of the most basic fundamentals of how it works. A cell site at USDA is a bad idea. It’s really not hard to understand why.

Cell towers and cell phones communicate along a line of sight. The signals can be blocked by buildings and trees. For good connections, the towers and phones need to “see” each other, or at least be blocked by as few buildings and trees as possible. It is helpful for towers to be slightly elevated above the local terrain, so they can beam their signals at the horizon.

The problem comes when cell towers are at lower altitudes than the phones they are communicating with. For example, the USDA labs are about 20 feet above sea level. The eastern side of Albany is between 100 to 200 feet above sea level. If a tower has to shoot signals uphill, the signals are blocked by every house, tree and terrain change in between them.

If cell towers must be located on low-lying land, one solution is to put them on tall buildings or tall towers (or both). We could put a tall cell tower on a tall USDA building, and some powerful amplifiers and blast the signal clear across town, over the playing fields and over University Village.

That would be an ugly solution both technically and aesthetically, but at least the cell tower NIMBYs in the east side of town wouldn’t have to be near one. But what about the residents of the western part of town, especially those in University Village? Oh, I forgot. The people in University Village talk with funny accents and have skin darker than ours. They don’t count. They live in the colored folk's neighborhood.

I’m a white male. I’m not exactly affluent, but I live in the far eastern part of town. Before that I lived in University Village. When I spoke to the City Council a few days ago, the word I used to describe the current situation was “revolting.”

By any measure of justice or fairness, we need to move cell towers further east in this town. This would also be better from a technical standpoint, because towers further east would be at higher altitudes and could be less intrusive. Cell phones and cell towers operate more safely and with less power when they are closer together. I would love to have a cell tower in my neighborhood.

This is not pie-in-the-sky. We have an obvious model of how well this could work, right here in Albany. sits in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Albany. The campus hosts three cell providers, Sprint, Metro PCS and T-Mobile. These sites were grandfathered in because they existed before Albany’s 2005 cell ordinance banned cell towers in residential neighborhoods. 

If the City Council had approved the 1035 San Pablo site for AT&T, and if we could duplicate the success at Albany’s private high school at Albany’s public high school (although with a different mix of providers), we would be a long way to solving our cell phone coverage problem. Albany’s public high school would also earn about $100,000 in rent annually from cell providers, as does Saint Mary’s. 

Of course, such a solution would take a few more City Council members with the common sense and problem-solving skills of council members Javandel and Thomsen. When it comes to common sense, Atkinson, Lieber and Wile’s skills leave something to be desired. Or perhaps they are driven by other motivations and irrational fears. Perhaps we should ask them. 

Good cell phone reception is an important issue in its own right. Good cell reception means a safer city, especially for our most vulnerable citizens. Blind and other disabled citizens have been pleading for years with the council to improve cell reception.

But, in addition to those considerations, there are issues of justice and fair play. Albany’s cell tower debates have revealed an ugly undercurrent to our NIMBY-driven politics. It’s time to erase Albany’s cell tower color line.

Click the "Keep me posted" button below this story for updates on cell phone issues in Albany. Read more on Albany Patch about the AT&T application here.

Read more about mobile phone issues in Albany

If there's something in this article you think , or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at albany@patch.com.

Michael Barnes July 22, 2012 at 05:23 PM
Kathryn, Sorry, I forget to mention this earlier, but here is how to find the high-res pdf P&Z map. You can zoom down all the way to house number, it's a great map: http://www.albanyca.org/index.aspx?page=26 Planning & Zoning » Important Planning & Zoning Documents
Michael Barnes July 25, 2012 at 05:12 AM
Council member Lieber didn't have a cell phone when he was a kid, and your kid doesn't need one either: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHvz1eFj7rc Lieber says four years is nothing, we often waste even more time that that, and I appear to be proud of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Acji5PxNmUw There is much that can said about the rest of the video, but that would be a long rejoinder.
Ross Stapleton-Gray July 29, 2012 at 01:09 AM
I suppose things could be worse with cell towers: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Phallic-cell-tower-gets-a-makeover-3741742.php
Emilie Raguso August 03, 2012 at 07:54 PM
An update on Albany's color line, via Michael Barnes: http://albany.patch.com/articles/column-the-lost-tribe-of-albany
Make It Right September 02, 2012 at 01:32 AM
Michael- I am with you on cell towers and 5 years being long enough to drag UC through the permit process for a grocery store. Can't understand why staff didn't finesse them into adding solar and bike lanes so Arkin, Nick Pilch and Preston Jordan wouldn't sue to stop the project. Also if Beth Pollard had served to represent the city well she would have got the the corner Gill Tract fields protected as open space. We had leverage we will never have again. So get ready for Occupy the Farm Round two when UC proposes their ultimate final development. If Farhid and Peggy Thompson had been stronger on standing up to the University it could have been done.


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