For many Bay Area residents, crystal-clear cell phone reception isn’t enough anymore. They want to be able to browse the Internet, check their emails and access their data plans instantly. But at what cost?
Sprint attempted to renew its 10-year contract for a cell tower located at 1175 Palomar Drive in unincorporated San Mateo County, but has encountered resistance from many neighbors. Kurt Oppenheimer, president of Palomar Property Owners Association, argues that there are several other locations in the area where a 28-foot industrial tower wouldn’t impose on a residential neighborhood.
“We’re not against ubiquitous coverage,” Oppenheimer said. “We’re against the commercialization of our residential neighborhood.”
The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors agreed with residents and denied Sprint’s permit renewal over four years ago. But Sprint has continued its efforts to press for the cell tower location. The company has proposed four alternative sites: on a Mormon Church on Edgewood Road, atop the Cordilleras Mental Health Center, on and in Edgewood County Park.
“No one wants the tower on a school or a on a health center,” Oppenheimer said. “They weren’t looking fully at other viable alternatives.”
He added that the four towers, aside from being poor location choices, would not provide the coverage that Sprint hopes to have.
Oppenheimer, a retired Intel engineer, conducted his own analysis and suggested four locations of his own, including atop three water towers and one at a water district pump station. All would provide the same coverage as locations with existing industrial structures, he said.
“Other cell phone companies have managed to get by without that tower location,” Oppenheimer said. “Why can’t Sprint?”
He said Metro PCS installed a cell site on a utility pole on Edgewood Road, a much less conspicuous addition. AT&T was able to expand its coverage from “No coverage” to “Moderate” without using the 1175 Palomar location, he said.
A California law states that once one company establishes a tower in a location, all other companies are allowed to place cell towers there, too.
Neither Sprint nor the Board of Supervisors would discuss the status of the lawsuit because of the ongoing litigation. The Board of Supervisors most recently scheduled a special meeting July 6 in San Francisco to meet with its legal counsel, though no reportable actions came of the meeting, according to board president Carole Groom.
The county allows cell phone companies to establish towers in locations if the companies can prove that there is a “significant gap in coverage,” meaning some residents cannot make emergency calls from their homes.
The county has expanded that definition to allow the building of towers if they provide more “convenience” for cell phone users, a broad description that worries Oppenheimer.
“Convenience for someone might mean he can’t download an MP3 from his cell phone,” Oppenheimer said. “In this age of immediacy, we want to be able to do everything from our phones.”
Oppenheimer said the Sprint case is not unique to unincorporated areas.
In February, a controversial T-mobile tower was approved in San Carlos despite many residents’ protests.
A San Bruno man said in May that he will peacefully, but physically, block construction of a T-mobile cell tower, according to the San Jose Mercury News. He said he was concerned for the health of his 1-year-old daughter who he claims would be exposed to radiation.
Oppenheimer said he and his neighbors ultimately want the Sprint permit denied, but also a better relationship with cell phone companies.
“They could have tried being good neighbors and working with us,” Oppenheimer said. “Instead they were highly antagonistic."