For several months residents of a Sebastopol apartment complex have been alleging a health crisis is taking place due to the proximity of a cell tower located near their homes.
Residents of Petaluma Avenue Homes, 571 Petaluma Avenue, have voiced their concerns to city council members during public comment starting in August and were able to speak out to further the conversation during a public hearing at the Dec. 4 council meeting.
Connie Vondralee has lived at Petaluma Avenue Homes since March 2009. She said the complex now has 45 units and approximately 100 residents, 38 of which are children.
Vondralee, along with seven other Petaluma Avenue Homes residents, addressed the council asking for help to get the cell tower moved or removed. Vondralee said the apartment complex sits on a hill between the Crown Castle tower (located on the Palm Drive Health Care District property, next to Sonoma Specialty Hospital), the cell tower located by the library, the cell tower near the police station and the cell tower that is on top of the roof of the movie theater.
“So we are right in the center of all that activity and we are getting it because we are on the hill,” she said. “In the ten years I have lived there five people have died. Their deaths have been from cancer, heart failure, crippling osteoporosis and diabetes.”
Other residents spoke about their ongoing health issues and the cancer cases that plague their community. Vondralee said 12 residents are facing current health issues including breast and ovarian cancers.
Dennis Colthurst, PDHCD director, spoke to the council and to the public during the meeting pledging action on behalf of the health care district, the entity that owns the property where the Crown Castle tower resides. He said he wanted to assure everyone that this situation is not a case of, “us versus them.”
“We are opening an investigation and if something needs fixing, we will fix it or have the companies fix it,” he said.
City Attorney/Manager Larry McLaughlin said the reason for the public hearing was to give council a chance to hear from residents. He reaffirmed that the city has no jurisdiction over the cell tower and only holds jurisdiction over the use permit itself, which was granted in 2017.
“I don’t believe there are any legal grounds to revoke that use permit,” McLaughlin stated.
In 2007 the affordable co-housing complex was owned by Petaluma Avenue Homes, LP, but is now listed under Berkeley-based Satellite Affordable Housing Associates. The company could not be reached for comment by presstime.
McLaughlin said the issue is complex.
“There’s the psychological aspect of having to live in the shadow of this cell tower; there’s the aspect that this cell tower is on property that’s owned by a health care district and the residents have a number of health concerns; there’s the aspect of this that the city really doesn’t have any legal jurisdiction over this topic,” he said.
City staff and councilmember Michael Carnacchi have spoken with two companies associated with the cell tower; AT&T who leases space on the tower and Crown Castle who owns the tower. Both have responded with the fact that the city has no jurisdiction on the matter and that the cell tower is in full compliance with all applicable laws.
Due to that issue, McLaughlin said the city is taking attempting a different approach to appeal to a higher nature. He said the approach the city is taking is a, “be a good neighbor approach.”
The city hired an expert in the field, Liz Menkes, to measure radio frequency levels at various locations in the housing development. “It takes some explanation to understand what those numbers are telling you,” McLaughlin said.
AT&T representatives offered to run their own test on the tower. A Crown Castle attorney did speak with McLaughlin offering to visit with residents to explain the cell tower meets with federal standards.
McLaughlin suggested to council it would be a good idea to let activities take place and revisit the subject in a couple of weeks.
The council made a motion to send a letter to the health care district asking for specific mitigation measures. The changes requested include moving the cell tower 1,500 feet away from apartments and raising it 150 feet. The letter also requests the cell tower be powered off while the process is taking place.
Councilmember Sarah Glade-Gurney said the issue reminded her of the city’s history with SMART meters.
“We were just this little city who took on the issue because of our public concern and we’re not discouraged by the no jurisdiction situation and I think right now we have that situation where our public is telling us there is a health and safety concern and our responsibility is to act,” she said.
Crown Castle was founded in Houston in 1994 with 133 cell towers. According to their website, they now have more than 40,000 towers and 100 offices nationwide.