Can you hear me now?
By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
TIFFIN– The City of Tiffin has a new water tower, and a cellular service provider would like to take advantage of it. The city, however, is not saying yes or no until they connect with the public.
The Tiffin City Council will hold a public information meeting Jan. 8, 2014, in order to gain citizen input on whether or not to enter into an agreement to rent space atop the town’s new water tower for cellular antenna equipment.
Representatives from Selective Site Consultants, Inc. approached Tiffin City Administrator Michon Jackson in September of this year to request a lease agreement that would allow Verizon Wireless to place cellular antenna equipment on the new water tower located off Jasper Avenue. It’s a common arrangement between communications companies and many public entities that have tall towers or buildings, and typically generates money for the community. For example, the City of North Liberty has leased tower space to U.S. Cellular, iWireless and AT&T for 15 years, which generates $30,000 per year for the city. Solon leases tower space to South Slope as well, with revenues of $3,194 per year. Johnson County has one contract with iWireless for a tower on top of the Health and Human Services building, receiving $750 per month in a 5-year lease with an option to renew.
Tiffin has also had a similar agreement with U.S. Cellular and South Slope Telecommunications for several years, and the city receives a little over $800 per month from U.S. Cellular for the convenience. However, when Tiffin’s new water tower was constructed this year, it was built about 200 feet from the home of John Connor, and not without unpleasant side effects for the property owner, including disruptive construction noise and debris.
Now Connor is asking for the city to be proactive in preventing even more potential problems for him and his neighbors.
On Nov. 13, Selective Site Consultants representative Tom Beeler presented a proposal to the Tiffin City Council showing what the equipment looks like and how it might be installed. Connor was also present at that meeting.
“I am 201 feet from said water tower,” Connor told the council. “I would like to restate our strong concerns about the placement of a cellular tower station.”
Connor said he had researched the possible effects of living so near a cellular antenna.
“One thing that stuck in my head was an ANSI (American National Standards Institute) safety regulation for employees. They are only allowed to be within the vicinity of that cellular antenna for six minutes if they are inside of within 12 feet of it. Further away, the strength of the radiation is less, but the time factor counteracts some of that. We are 201 feet away, sometimes 24 hours a day,” Connor said.
Connor stated that the standards that regulate cell tower installation and safety are nearly 20 years old.
“The regulations stand upon old data,” Connor said. He noted that the Cedar Rapids Community School District board of education denied the installation of a cell tower on top of Johnson Elementary School because of health concerns for students.
“We ask that you be concerned about ours because of our close proximity to this proposed installation,” Connor said.
And whether health dangers are real or perceived, the installation could have a negative effect on property values for nearby residents.
“If the buyer thinks it’s something they don’t want to be around, they’re gone,” Connor said.
Connor said his findings resulted in roughly 50 percent of research saying there is a health hazard, and 50 percent saying there is none. However, there are still many questions even from experts, he added.
“The non-thermal radiation hasn’t been researched. Many entities are asking for that be researched further. There are quite a few unknowns, and if, in a couple years or 10 years from now, if we’ve been absorbing that all this time and there are problems, there will be hell to pay for somebody.”
Tiffin councilor Mike Ryan asked site consultant Beeler if potential hazards of being near a cellular signal source had been thoroughly researched.
“It’s a topic that comes up and quite frankly the sites are very low-powered. If you are concerned about being irradiated, there is an antenna in your cell phone and you are putting it right next to your brain,” he said. “I think there is a little more danger from those.”
Tiffin may be hard pressed to say no to Verizon, though. Local jurisdictions are prohibited from denying an installation application based on health concerns. City attorney Bob Michael has been charged with researching the law further to determine how the city would be allowed to respond from a legal standpoint.
As for property values, said Beeler, a number of studies conducted by real estate companies show that cell towers don’t have an impact.
“Almost all of them argue the opposite; we are finding communities are glad to see a tower so they have access to the broadband technology for their computers and smart phones,” he said.
Connor reiterated that the research is inconclusive, and council member Jo Kahler weighed in on the potential health risks.
“Nobody can confirm or deny it, right?” she asked. “It would scare me, John.”
Because no action was taking on the lease request in November, the issue returned to the council’s agenda last week to set a date for gathering information from the public. The city has not received a detailed offer from Verizon, and therefore the potential monetary gain from a lease is still unknown. Also, whether or not the equipment would comply with the city’s tower height ordinance is still up in the air.
Councilor Ryan suggested there may be an opportunity for the cellular equipment to be located away from residences, but that would also require additional research. Council member Jim Bartels wondered how a new lease would affect the city’s current cellular lease agreement and equipment on the old water tower, which is slated for demolition next year, and tasked attorney Michael with finding that information as well.
“It’s not so much about dollars and sense,” said Ryan. “I think the public hearing is more about cell phone towers and their general safety.”
Mayor Steve Berner concurred.“I agree, I think it’s a topic we need to explore before we even consider it,” said Berner.
The public is encouraged to attend the Jan. 8 forum to offer input on the proposal.
The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Springmeier Library.