About 75 concerned Southeast Portland residents crowded into Duniway School's auditorium last week to protest a proposed Clearwire wireless tower next to a church and about 20 feet from the nearest home.
When asked by a resident at the Nov. 2 meeting who could block the 90-foot pole from being built on the quiet residential street, Clearwire representative Stephen W. Topp's answer was simple: "Nobody."
Maybe, maybe not.
Neighborhood associations are uniting to keep wireless towers by looking to regulations enacted by other cities on the federally protected telecom giants. Last month, the Woodstock, Mount Tabor and Westmoreland neighborhood associations passed resolutions to keep Clearwire towers 2,000 feet away from schools, homes and playgrounds—no small limit in a densely populated city.
The resolutions, which don't carry any legal weight, are similar to a recent ordinance passed recently in Hempstead, N.Y. (In April, Glendale, Calif., also acted by creating a minimum buffer zone of 15 feet between property lines and poles in the public right of way.)
This Monday, Nov. 15, those three Portland neighborhood groups are holding a workshop to help cell-tower opponents citywide mobilize against towers they say are ugly and noisy, lower property values and emit harmful microwave radiation.
Independent studies have found health risks from the towers. Industry-funded studies have not. The only undisputed fact is that cell towers are polarizing.
And regulating the towers is complicated by a 1996 federal law that bars local governments from prohibiting telecom providers the right to provide service based on health concerns. Cities may use zoning laws to keep towers in commercial or industrial areas, but have limited say in public rights of way like on utility poles.
The issue is hot because city officials say Clearwire plans to blanket Portland with wireless antennae in the next several years to meet demand.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who manages the city's Office of Cable Communications and Franchise Management, has worked to enact guidelines limiting additions to 15 feet above the original utility pole and forcing telecoms to hold public forums when they want to erect a tower.
But residents like Frank Spillers, a spokesman for the No Tabor Tower neighborhood group, say that's not good enough.
"We recognize they've done something," he says. "What we need is for them to go faster, harder and stronger in pushing regulation against Clearwire."
When asked about what other cities like Hempstead and Glendale have done, Fritz policy adviser Tim Crail says the city's attorneys have said there's not much more that can be done.
"We've gone as far as we can without inviting a lawsuit," Crail says.
(In Oregon, Bend also is working on an ordinance that cites aesthetics instead of health to propose a ban on certain towers in residential areas and to keep them off historic buildings. Crail says that wouldn't work in Portland because "Portland's large tracts of residential areas make it difficult to find commercial spaces to put poles.")
Crail compares the towers' output to safe TV frequencies, but he does acknowledge widespread fears.
"We should address those fears," Crail says, "by trying to get them as far away from people as possible."
The Nov. 15 workshop will begin at 6:30 pm at the SE Uplift headquarters at 3534 SE Main Ave.