View from Mehrdad Fakour's balcony of a controversial, newly installed cellphone tower in North Berkeley. Photo: Mehrdad Fakour
View from Mehrdad Fakour’s North Berkeley balcony of a cellphone tower erected in October despite a petition objecting to its installation signed by over 190 neighbors. Photo: Mehrdad Fakour
View from Mehrdad Fakour’s North Berkeley balcony of a cellphone tower erected in October despite a petition objecting to its installation signed by over 190 neighbors. Photo: Mehrdad Fakour

By Michael Schiller

AT&T recently completed installation of a new cellphone tower (a DAS Node, or Distributed Antennae System Node to be specific) in the North Berkeley hills, across from 51 Del Mar Ave. It took four years to get the tower erected, and, in total, AT&T evaluated nine other sites based on feedback from residents and the city before settling on this one. (Full disclosure: this reporter lives within 500 feet of the new installation and started getting construction notices about it this summer.)

The site that AT&T ended up choosing for the installation is 14 feet from the balcony of Mehrdad. Because of the slope of the hill, the DAS Node and antennae are right at eye level when standing on Mehrdad’s balcony. The view of his neighbor, Hana Matt, is also impacted by the new pole.

“I think it is a cruel and inhumane intrusion when AT&T can install a radiation-emitting cell tower 14 feet from people’s homes…. our property value will drop, and it’s in violation of the Berkeley Aesthetic Guidelines,” Matt said.

Matt is talking about the Berkeley Aesthetic Guidelines for Public Right of Way Permits under the Berkeley Municipal Code. 

The new cellphone tower. Photo: Michael Schiller
The new cellphone tower across from 51 Del Mar Ave. Photo: Michael Schiller

Section II. G 2. states, “above-ground installations shall not be placed in front of the primary entrance to a residence or at any other location where they would unduly interfere including blocking views or windows,” and Section II. G 7. states, “above ground facilities should not be placed at any location where they will be in a direct line of sight of a significant or sensitive view corridor, would adversely affect a scenic vista.”

Matt and Mehrdad collected over 190 signatures from community residents who did not want the new cell tower erected in their neighborhood.

Tempers flared at a tense meeting between community residents and AT&T representative Daren Chan in July, as neighbors voiced concerns about the effect on property values, visual blight, noise — the DAS Nodes make an audible hum — and potential health risks.

According to Mehrdad, “Fighting a big company such as AT&T has been a major ordeal, and has taken a lot of energy and time. It has taken all the joy out of our lives, and we are greatly concerned for our health, and the devaluation of our property.”

In their quest to stop the pole from being erected, Mehrdad and an association of neighborhood residents were able to get a meeting in September with City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley and City Engineer Don Irby, which this reporter also attended. The meeting was arranged by Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who represents the district where the cellphone tower has been installed. Speaking about the installation, Wengraf said: “I am frustrated and angry about it. I have lost sleep over it. There are federal laws regulating what we can and cannot do and they are limited… I share the sense of helplessness with the residents close to these installations.”

That sense of helplessness was palpable at the meeting in September, when Hana Matt went line by line through a document that had been prepared with help from legal counsel, detailing perceived violations of Berkeley’s Aesthetic Guidelines, and other points of contention with the project.

Wengraf, Dee Williams-Ridley and Irby listened to Matt’s presentation. While acknowledging their frustrations, the residents were informed that because guidelines are not codes, they can’t be enforced, and that the installation would move forward.

Installation of the new pole began on Oct. 26, and took just a few days to complete.

Cities around the country are fighting cell tower installations, and San Francisco recently won a Supreme Court Decision against T-Mobile, with regards to aesthetic regulation of telecom installations.

When asked by email why Berkeley can’t, or won’t, enforce its aesthetic guidelines, City Attorney Zach Cowan responded: “The Public Works Department enforces the City’s aesthetic guidelines through the permit process. As you will note from reading them, the guidelines are flexible, and are not, and not intended to be, hard-and-fast regulations. If you review the regulations at issue in the T-Mobile case, you will note that they are similar in this respect.”

The legalese of the documents relating to cellphone towers can present riddles: When is something that’s above the ground not “above ground”?  How can a new telephone pole not actually be considered a “new pole”? Why would a city have “unenforceable guidelines”? When is 17 feet away too close, when 14 feet is far enough away?

The answers to these questions might be found in a tangled web of legal interpretation of the Federal Communications Commission Act of 1996. This law paved the way for telecom companies to erect cell towers with few enforceable restrictions.

AT&T’s intention in erecting the DAS Node in North Berkeley is to close a gap in cell coverage, according to Kate Ijams, spokeswoman for AT&T California. “AT&T worked with the City of Berkeley and residents for nearly four years to find the least intrusive location that can close the significant gap in coverage in the area,” she said. This was echoed by AT&T’s Daren Chan at the community meeting in July when he pointed out that his cell phone wasn’t getting good service in the neighborhood.

No one in the hills seems to be arguing against better service. It’s the tall pole with big heavy equipment mounted to it that has neighbors concerned about earthquake and fire hazards, aesthetics, the potential devaluation of their property, noise, and, finally, the potential health hazards of the low-frequency electromagnetic radiation emissions that the cell towers put out.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibits local jurisdictions from banning cell towers based on radio frequency emission concerns, however, including those relating to health, despite new scientific evidence suggesting cellphone radiation causes cancer in rats. The FCC laws do allow competing providers to put their own towers in the same coverage zone, so it’s not impossible that another tower might be destined for the neighborhood at some point.

The old pole. Photo: Michael Schiller
The old, smaller pole at the location of the new cellphone tower. Photo: Michael Schiller
The old, smaller pole at the location of the new cellphone tower. Photo: Michael Schiller

Some municipalities are banning cell towers near hospitals and schools, and there are actually laws forbidding workers from being any closer than 17 feet from the front of a DAS Node antenna, for health reasons.

The one that was installed across from 51 Del Mar is 14 feet from the bedroom of this reporter’s neighbor. Because it is 14 feet from the back of the antennae, and not the front, it is legal. Because it’s mounted to the pole and not resting on the ground, it’s not considered “above ground.” Because there was a smaller telephone pole already at the location (24 feet above grade), that was replaced with a brand new, taller pole (the new one is around 37 feet above grade, plus antennae), it’s not considered a “new pole” that would have been another violation of aesthetic guidelines (Part II, Section F, Subsection 4 “new utility poles over 40 feet are prohibited”).

A statement from AT&T reads: “We are proud to be a part of this community — our customers and employees live and work here. We are committed to working with the community to find the best possible solution.” However North Berkeley Hills residents were left feeling abandoned when AT&T and City Engineer Don Irby stopped responding to their emails and calls, and AT&T began the installation process.

Diane Southworth, whose home is directly across from the new installation, said: “I don’t think that I can fully express my anger and disbelief at a system that we pay to protect us… AT&T and Don Irby told us that the purpose of the new antenna was to direct radiation to the gully at the bottom of Del Mar and upward to the hills to the south and east. Instead, the box is pointing directly at my front door — a clear violation of the aesthetic guidelines…”

As of press time, Mayor-elect Jesse Arreguín has not responded to emailed requests for comment on the enforcement of Berkeley aesthetic guidelines.

Michael I. Schiller is the Creative Director of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and an Emmy Award winning producer and director. 

Federal judge upholds Berkeley cellphone warning (1.28.16)
Berkeley Hills residents may get new AT&T cell antennas (13.9.13)

Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing. And make sure to bookmark Berkeleyside’s pages on Facebook and Twitter. You don’t need an account on those sites to view important information.

Freelance writers with story pitches can email