A failure of process
Another neighborhood over our way is about to get a bunch of cell antennas on a power pole near homes, and the neighbors are not happy about it. This time the installation is going to go up on a Pacific Power pole on NE Stanton Street west of 24th Avenue. As with the tower about to go up near the Wilshire Market on Fremont Street, it's a gift from the cell phone pushers at Clearwire. The families just across the street from the pole are up in arms, as are many of their neighbors. The lawn signs are up, the flyers are being left on the porches, and the anger is palpable.
The neighbors are making all the arguments: The antennas will reduce their property values, expose them to radiation the health effects of which are not fully understood, make a lot of noise, and be ugly as sin at 90 feet in height. The city is forbidden by federal law from taking the health questions into account in regulating the siting of these transmitters, but it is allowed to consider the other issues. And the city has pretty much decided that the downsides for the neighbors are just tough luck.
Complicating matters just a bit for the homeowners in the Stanton case is that there's a classic old telephone switching station at that location, and it's still owned by Qwest. Inside that building is all manner of scary-looking telephone equipment -- passersby can hear the cooling systems hum away, 24/7 -- and at one time there clearly were cell phone antennas on top of the building. Nowadays there's some suspicious stuff up on the roof that probably is a bunch of transmitters, but it's not obvious what it is. There are usually few, if any, human beings in that facility. If you moved in next to a place that spooky, some folks are not going to be too sympathetic to your complaints about some additional antennas up above.
Unfortunately for the neighbors, the cell phone industry has convinced the city to allow these installations just about anywhere there's an existing utility pole. Today it's 23rd and Stanton and 37th and Fremont, but there will be dozens, maybe even hundreds, more startled and upset Portland neighborhoods over the next few years as the cell phone boys take the city up on its open pole policy.
That so many people are stomping around upset (or soon will be doing so) indicates to us that there's been a failure in how the city's policy was made and implemented. The city held lots of meetings about this -- I believe Commissioner Fritz was at the helm -- and we blogged about them in a minor way a year ago. Did the average person hear about these meetings? Probably not. And of those who did hear, how many of them thought it was worth their time to go? Probably only a few. In the abstract, the issue is not important enough to give up one's scarce free time over. But put a tower 50 feet from your kid's bedroom, and it's a different story.
Maybe the neighborhood associations could have done more to get the word out, and get interest up. But does the average person listen to that crowd, or want to go to a bunch of meetings with them to keep up on things? Again, probably not.
Given the degree of difficulty in getting a meaningful public process going, the city should have proceeded as cautiously as possible. Maybe the cell companies should have been given a three-year or five-year experimental period in which they could install a limited number of antennas for a limited duration to gauge public reaction and increase public awareness of what was coming. The city didn't do that. Now residents all over town are going to stuck with deals of who knows how long -- 10 years, 20 years, maybe more?
In this case, the pole is a Pacific Power pole, in the public right of way, and the adjacent property is owned by Qwest. Are either of those two entities collecting a rent or other fee from Clearwire for the privilege? Is the city? Could any of them had said no? If so, the angry neighbors ought to be picketing and otherwise making life miserable for them, and for whoever else may be benefiting economically from the installation. Protests probably won't change the result in this particular case, but they might send a signal to other landlords in the future that the money they get from the Clearwire types won't come without costs.
In any event, it would be great if the city leaders would put down their own smart phones, stop Tweeting for a few months, and go out and really listen to what's important to the families who make up the backbone of the community. For all the grandstanding Portland does about its public involvement processes, that didn't happen on this issue. The residents who should have known this might be coming, never found out until it was too late. And as readers will doubtlessly attest, this is not the only place in which the city has fallen down on the public involvement job.