AT&T Mobility officials presented neighborhood representatives with their case for proposed cell antennas at Epworth United Methodist Church late Monday. It was the first of at least three meetings expected between neighborhood groups and AT&T.
Briefly put, the AT&T argument is that cell network use is growing exponentially, while the infrastructure used to convey signals hasn't kept up. Company engineers long ago identified Candler Park as a zone where young educated families, park and retail visitors, and even the school population was driving demand upward, according to AT&T Senior Real Estate Manager David Walker.
Antennas south of DeKalb Avenue and to the northwest (around Poncey Highland) are pushing the cellphone carrier's local network capacity already, while our neighborhood's ridges, ravines and trees reduce the effective range of radiofrequency waves from those facilities, Walker said.
Walker also presented a formidable array of official positions from various authorities — including the American Cancer Society and the Federal Communications Commission — which contend both that cell antennas haven't been shown to pose a significant health risk and that reseach into the behavior of radiofrequency waves offers no reason to believe they would pose a health risk. According an FCC document that Walker quoted, urban arrays typically put out fewer than 10 watts of actual radiated power per antenna.
Although structural details won't be finalized until the company applies for its building permit, Walker said the shape of the project won't deviate much: Epworth's tower would be extended about 30 feet to 102 feet above ground level, the antennas themselves will be installed inside the steeple approximately 70 feet above street level; and the initial installation will include three AT&T antennas, but the design allows room to "colocate" one or two additional carriers.
A Mell Avenue resident who's child attends Epworth Day School articulated the concerns of project opponents and asked particularly pressing questions. Lara Sevener argued that, when it comes to parents worried about their children's safety, any hint of a risk to public health trumps the reassurances of authoritative agencies. AT&T's interests should be distinguished from those of the public, she added.
And, she said, church leaders only excarcerbated suspicions by failing to involve neighbors and preschool parents in earlier discussions about the antennas: "The real question is not whether cell [antennas] cause cancer. ... It's that a lot of people are feeling very disenfranchised and tricked."
Epworth Pastor Lisa Dempsey offered something of a mea culpa for the church's lack of early communication. She said Epworth has been following its normal internal process for major decision-making, but she acknowledged that she and other church leaders aren't expert at engaging in broader, controversial community discussions.
Dempsey and the AT&T officials are bound to get more practice, though. Tonight, they're slated to meet with the parents of Epworth Day School students about the project. At some point, we at CPNO expect to organize an open forum that will include the AT&T representatives. And, as CPNO president, I urged company officials last night to make a special effort to meet with the church's nearest residential neighbors.
There are strong opinions on the project across the neighborhood. Although our members eventually may wish to take a position on the antennas, I view CPNO's most effective role at this point to serve as a deseminator of information and as the facilitator of a fair and transparent discussion.
That said, the hard fact is that neighbors will have limited opportunities for input once AT&T starts working its way over the official hurdles it must jump to build the facility. An FCC registration process includes a review of historical significance that may allow for some public input, and a City of Atlanta Special Administrative Permit allows for review and comment by Neighborhood Planning Unit-N (of which Candler Park is a part), which in turn will offer our Zoning Committee and our members an opportunity for input.
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