Despite overwhelming neighborhood opposition, telecommunications giant Verizon Wireless and Colonial Hills United Methodist Church won approval from the Zoning Commission on Tuesday for a proposed 80-foot cell tower on the church's property. The latest development in a two-year case has a majority of nearby residents disappointed in how the church has handled the situation.
The tower would be shaped like a cross, according to plan documents submitted to the City. City Council will consider the case after its regular meetings resume in August.
Such design strategies are becoming more common in the wireless communications industry as it continues to grow. The Fellowship of San Antonio, adjacent to the Buckner Fanning School at Mission Springs, has a cell tower with a cross element on its property in Stone Oak.
Although the proposed tower is in District 9, it is close to the northern edge of District 1 in the Colonial Hills neighborhood. At least 10 neighbors signed up to speak against the zoning change, citing poor aesthetics of the tower that could lower property values and possible interference with television signals, according to commissioners and other attendees. About five people, most of whom were members of the church, spoke in favor.
The revenues that the church would collect from allowing Verizon to construct the tower could allow the church to continue its good work in the community, Colonial Hills Neighborhood Association President Claudia Castillo Gonzalez told the Rivard Report on Thursday, but she wishes the church would have talked more with the community about the tower and its design.
"I don't think of it as a disguised cell tower, I just think of it as a tower," Castillo Gonzalez said, noting that neighbors were only made aware of the zoning change that would allow the commercial use of the residentially zoned lot via a notification sign on the property. The church held one community meeting after the initial request, for a 120-foot tower, was filed two years ago, she said. The case was delayed for various reasons until Tuesday.
Castillo Gonzalez was unable to attend the Commission meeting this week, but she's convinced that more conversation with community members could have led to a more creative solution. There are examples of more artistic cell towers in cities and remote locations all over the world, including some that look like trees, cacti, sculptural art, flag poles, bell towers, and more.
"Unfortunately at this point, the church is allowing itself to absorb community disappointment on behalf of Verizon,” she said. "It's not an ugly feeling, it's just sad."
It's unknown how much revenue the church would receive from its lease agreement with Verizon, which might be trying to fill a gap in coverage, improve existing coverage, or stay competitive in the growing market.
Representatives from Colonial Hills United Methodist Church and Verizon did not respond to request for comment in time to be included in this article.
This zoning case is "unusual, but also very typical," Zoning Commission Chair Francine Romero told the Rivard Report. Dozens of cell towers requests have come before the commission and it's common for churches to put them on their property, but this one is unique in that it would be constructed in a largely residential area – on a residentially zoned lot.
Technically, the tower is "commercial use," Romero said, "but we just don't see the typical impacts that commercial developments would have ... it's not noisy, there's no increased traffic because of it or more people."
An on-site generator to power the tower might be loud, but it would only be used if the electricity went out, she said.
During the meeting Romero asked City staff if the church would be able to construct a cross or sculpture of similar size – no cell tower included – on the property without a zoning change.
City staff said they would have to get a building permit and wouldn't have to come to zoning, Romero recalled. "[So it] isn't really doing anything additional that would be intrusive to the neighbors."
Commissioner Siboney Diaz-Sanchez (D1) cast the sole vote against the proposal.
"The fact is that a vast majority of residents didn't want it there," Diaz-Sanchez said. "So I can't support it. It's my role to consider what a community wants."
Councilman John Courage (D9) echoed that sentiment via text on Thursday, but stopped short of indicating how he would vote.
"The residents in the area have voiced legitimate concerns about what could be an encroachment of commercial activity in their neighborhood," he stated. "I was elected to listen to these very concerns and I look forward to more input from my constituents."
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) told the Rivard Report on Friday that he plans on speaking with his colleagues on Council, especially Courage, and asking for a continuance on the case.
"I think this is a design problem," Treviño said. "The big issue was that there wasn't any discussion about any kind of compromise."
The height of the tower was reduced to 80 feet from 120, but it will still be part of the "community landscape" he said, adding that a rendering of what the tower will look like would help both sides understand the true scope of the project.
"This is the kind of stuff that I think needs to be seen," Treviño said.
Due to federal regulations, zoning commissioners – or any decision-making entities that consider cell towers, are not allowed to consider research about possible health risks, such as cancer, from the low levels of radio frequency radiation the towers emit.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which some say was influenced by company lobbyists states: “No State or local government or instrumentality thereof may regulate the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the Commission’s regulations concerning such emissions.”
"Some people have expressed concern that living, working, or going to school near a cell phone tower might increase the risk of cancer or other health problems," states the American Cancer Society. "At this time, there is very little evidence to support this idea. In theory, there are some important points that would argue against cellular phone towers being able to cause cancer."
But scientists "continue to study the effects of long-term exposure to low levels of RF," according to the EPA.
There was a lot more discussion about potential health effects during the first meeting about this case two years ago, but the City's attorney had to remind the Commission to disregard those comments.
"We have to consider [the zoning case] separate from any claims about risks for human health," Romero said.
Castillo Gonzalez, and most of those opposed that spoke on Tuesday, did not bring up health risks as a reason to deny the zoning change. For her, it's "all about conversation and there hasn't been any.
"Everyone recognizes that Colonial Hills United Methodist Church is a great community partner," she said. They have a school, offer daycare, host Fiesta events, and more. "No one is arguing they're not important to the community, but there are a lot of people in the surrounding neighborhood that [would be] negatively affected by this tower."