By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
She and other mothers at the school set up a stall at the Sunday-morning farmers market, gathering 450 anti-tower petition signatures ahead of the zoning hearing. After hearing how much the church would be paid for the cell tower, the campaigners offered to raise the $10,000 themselves, but the Methodist leaders were not interested. Their response, according to Werner, “certainly did not come from a high spiritual place.”
At the zoning hearing, Metricom had seven or eight representatives intent on allaying the community’s fears. Alison Cooper, a part-time radio producer whose daughter Juliette attends Palisades Elementary across the street from the church, got up and said she wanted to know how much radiation Juliette would be exposed to by sitting in her classroom a hundred yards away for six hours a day.
“They looked at me, and at first nobody said anything,” Cooper recalled. “One finally said, ‘Negligible.’ Another said there was a ‘doughnut effect,’ and the radiation would just go right over her. I asked again how much radiation she would be exposed to. They looked at each other and didn’t know what to say. Then, one of them pulled out a chart with a picture of a baby monitor. He said it would be the same amount of radiation as you would get from a baby monitor.”
Almost nobody in the room believed the Metricom representatives. They were PR people, not engineers, and seemed less well-versed in their subject than their detractors. Cooper left the meeting disgusted. “They didn’t want to tell me how much she’d be exposed to, or else they had no idea,” she said. “Either scenario wasn’t good. It scared the wits out of me.”
In the end, Metricom backed down, possibly because of the financial difficulties that plunged the company into Chapter 11 insolvency shortly afterward. But other phone companies were just getting warmed up. Last fall, an AT&T affiliate came within a whisker of placing a cell tower at the Calvary Christian School in the Palisades Highlands. The zoning-variance notice had gone up at the school during the summer holidays and had attracted no attention. Lynne Henney found it “hanging from a string in front of the school, where it was basically illegible.” Henney, who has children at the school, found out from a news item in the Palisadian Post that the tower had been approved by zoning officials and that a final decision was due from the school authorities in four days. She swung into action: speaking to the Methodist Church campaigners, compiling material on the potential health risks and phoning everyone she knew to put pressure on the Calvary Christian leaders. When one of the school’s most experienced teachers “flipped out” and threatened resignation if the tower went ahead, the church backed out within 24 hours.
The Riviera Country Club’s turn came last November. The notice about AT&T’s proposed tower appeared in the middle of the Thanksgiving holiday. Again, local knowledge compiled from previous fights paved the protesters’ way, and the petition signatures were gathered, the letters written and arguments marshaled and honed in the three weeks before a scheduled zoning hearing. The key organizer was Mary Tanner, a disarmingly articulate former English-literature professor, whose home on Napoli Drive, overlooking the Riviera golf course, became a clearing-house of photocopied documents and scientific articles, all neatly arranged in crisp manila folders.
“Look, I’m the mother of a 2-year-old. I don’t want my child exposed to radiation,” she said. “I don’t want to be exposed to it. Don’t get me wrong — wireless technology is incredible. It’s important and it’s necessary. But it needs to be made safe. It’s going to be the major public-health issue in the next 20, 30, 40 years. I’m sure of it.”
Not everything went the activists’ way in their initial push. Eight people wrote letters supporting the cell tower. At the country club, Jessica Teich encountered considerable resistance when she distributed campaign materials and tried to talk fellow members into signing the petition. One doctor turned on her when she started talking about World Health Organization guidelines. “Little lady,” he snapped, “you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Teich was later summoned before the club’s Etiquette Committee to discuss her dissemination of “unauthorized literature,” although no punitive action was taken.
Many neighborhood celebrities — even those sympathetic to the cause — were extremely leery of getting involved, and none agreed to have their name used for publicity purposes. “I don’t want to lose my golf membership, but I’ll write you a check,” was a commonly heard sentiment. One organizer, who did not wish to be identified, said she had to put the petition form on a clipboard and physically thrust it under certain celebrities’ noses, along with a suitably classy pen, before they would sign it.
Among those who ended up signing were Larry David, Roger Corman, Daniel Petrie (the former president of the Screen Actors Guild) and screenwriter Steven ‰ Zaillian. David has been by far the most involved of the Hollywood crowd — he is also prominent in his wife Laurie’s anti-SUV campaign — and quietly went to see the Riviera club management on the neighborhood’s behalf. Rita Wilson signed the petition but not her husband, Tom Hanks.