MORE

Can You Hear Them Now?

Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

The deliberations of the West L.A. Planning Commission may not sound like anyone’s idea of a rip-roaring good time, but on a recent Wednesday evening they gave rise to a strangely gripping piece of community theater.

Flooding the room were more than a hundred incensed residents of the Riviera section of Pacific Palisades. Their gleaming SUVs and BMW convertibles might have looked out of place on the unlovely corner of Sepulveda and Exposition boulevards, but they were gathered here with an unswerving sense of purpose.

The object of their disaffection was a 62-foot cell-phone transmission tower that AT&T Wireless wanted to erect on Riviera County Club grounds. AT&T argued that the neighborhood needed the coverage, but the residents, all of them sporting pink-and-black “NO AT&T Tower” badges, were here to make it known they wouldn’t stand for an ugly imitation tree blanketing their children with low-level electromagnetic radiation.

The AT&T team — a fake-blond flack and a lawyer in a bad suit who had been flown in from San Francisco — was looking surprisingly nervous, especially given that it had won the previous round with the city zoning administrator. Its nerves might have had something to do with the militancy in the air or with the fact that the Riviera residents had hired the best land-use lawyers in town, from the firm of Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro.

During the hearing, the AT&T lawyer, Paul Albritton, kept referring to the proposed monopole tower as a tree. “It’s not a tree!” screamed the audience. Then Albritton found he had no really good answer when asked whether AT&T had looked seriously into other possible sites from which to transmit. “It’s difficult to find a location to put these towers,” he concluded plaintively, under the withering gaze of the sharply dressed sharks from Jeffer Mangels.

At one point, Albritton was interrupted in midflow so the clerk could change the audiocassette recording the proceedings. “Shall I tell you a joke?” he suggested nervously while he was waiting. “You are a joke!” yelled Jessica Teich, a normally well-mannered author and mother who had fought the cell tower on and off for the previous six months. The room dissolved in laughter.

The scene was just the latest battle in the ever-expanding war against cell towers — in the Palisades, in residential neighborhoods across L.A., indeed, across the country. The issue, in each case, is more or less the same: The phone companies want to extend their coverage, often in competition with each other for the same chunk of territory, while the grassroots activists fret about the potentially scary, but still largely unknown, health effects on residents living in the immediate shadow of the towers.

The fights against cell towers haven’t attracted much media attention, but they brim with passion and a surprising degree of political savvy. In L.A., bitter battles have been waged and, for the most part, won, everywhere from Silver Lake and Studio City to Mar Vista and Malibu. They have been organized entirely on a volunteer basis by stay-at-home mothers, by underemployed actors or, in one case, by a Vietnamese manicurist who spread the word to her customers even as she trimmed down their cuticles.

The Palisades is perhaps the biggest flashpoint of all: an area of exceptionally high demand for cell phones and other wireless gadgets forever being frustrated by the limitations of the hilly terrain. At the same time, it’s a neighborhood full of highly educated, well-resourced people with a natural tendency to worry about commercial vulgarity and even the tiniest environmental disturbance to their own and their children’s well-being.

Every part of my body says this is not okay,” said Diane Binder, one of the Riviera campaigners and a mother of two elementary school children whose house looks out directly onto the part of the country club where AT&T wanted to mount its multipanel antenna. “It’s like the Indians standing in front of the railroad.”

Protest campaigns are new to people like Binder. “I’ve never picketed in my life,” she said, sounding mildly shocked at the very idea. “I’ve never even held a sign.” But the cell-tower issue has energized Riviera residents like nothing else. A few months ago, Binder put a giant banner on a lawn reading “Recreation, not radiation!” She attended regular community meetings and fired off a sharply worded letter to the Riviera County Club’s general manager, in which she made ruthless fun of the assertion that the tower could make a difference in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency. “I have lived in this area all my life,” she wrote, “through the Watts riots of 1965, the Sylmar quake of ’71, the L.A. riots of ’92, the Northridge quake of ’94, and many things in between, all without the help of AT&T.”

 

The campaign as a whole assembled 355 petition signatures, some of them from well-known film and television personalities; wrote more than 300 letters; successfully enlisted the support of its city councilwoman, Cindy Miscikowski; erected banners and lawn signs to coincide with the Nissan Open golf tournament at the country club in February; retained the services of an environmental consultant; and fired off some singularly nasty lawyer’s letters penned by Jessica Teich’s husband, a prominent entertainment attorney named Michael Gendler.

The thing that got this and every other group going was the scientific literature. Leif Salford, a professor of neurology at the University of Lund in Sweden, has described mobile-phone technology as “the largest human biological experiment ever,” with no certain outcome. Another prominent expert and government consultant, Gerald Hyland of the University of Warwick in England, wrote in an article for the British medical journal The Lancet that “[I]f mobile phones were a type of food, they simply would not be licensed because

there is so much uncertainty surrounding their safety.”

The Federal Communications Commission regulates mobile phones for direct thermal effects — in other words, you can be pretty sure they won’t burn your ear off, even after prolonged exposure. But the FCC says nothing about the longer-term, non-thermal effects of low-level radiation, effects that the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health and other august bodies are still busy investigating in the wake of preliminary studies possibly linking cell phones to a frightening array of medical disorders including infertility, insomnia, mental disorientation, brain damage and cancer.

The FCC has another nasty surprise up its sleeve, too, one that sends already suspicious neighborhood activists into paroxysms of indignation. Under the 1996 Federal Telecommun-

ications Act, cell-tower opponents are specifically prohibited from raising any of their health concerns at zoning hearings. Astonishing, but true: According to Section 704 of Title VII of the act, state and local governments have no authority to refuse permission for a cell tower “on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions.” Never mind that the science is far from complete, or that the Food and Drug Administration recommends a policy of “prudent avoidance” of cell-phone radiation, especially with children. The Telecommunications Act was, in the words of its chief sponsor, former Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota, “the most lobbied bill in history.” As a result, the phone companies were let entirely off the hook.

The health provision is already being challenged on constitutional grounds in the Supreme Court. In the meantime, though, neighborhood activists have to think up very clever strategies to defeat the cell towers without actually mentioning the one thing on all of their minds — what all this cell radiation might do to their bodies. At the West L.A. Planning Commission meeting, the Jeffer Mangels lawyers tried a bit of everything: questioning the wisdom of upsetting the strictly residential zoning around the country club, questioning the aesthetics of putting a fake pine tree in among a grove of eucalyptus, even questioning the procedural correctness of the zoning administrator, a halting man named Dan Green. Nothing, though, was as effective as sitting back and letting the other side shoot itself in the foot. Paul Albritton unwisely began one sentence with the phrase, “I probably shouldn’t say this,” but proceeded to say it anyway: that AT&T could create a “Disneyland” world in which a cell tower could convincingly be made to look like anything. One planning commissioner, Flora Krisiloff, replied that she found this line offensive in the context of the quiet, tree-lined streets and multimillion-dollar homes of the Riviera.

Albritton responded: “But my daughter loves Disneyland.”

“That’s why it’s in Orange County!” yelled an enraged Palisadian from the gallery.

AT&T’s application was speedily turned down by the planning commission four votes to one.

 

The Palisades cell wars began almost three years ago, with a brace of proposed towers that would have directly exposed school children to electromagnetic radiation. Sprint wanted to place a tower at the Paul Revere Middle School, right on the Palisades-Brentwood border, while the now-defunct Metricom had its eye on the tower of the Methodist Church in the heart of the Palisades Village. Metricom offered the Methodist Church, which has an elementary school on its campus and another four unaffiliated schools in the immediate vicinity, $10,000 a year — almost certainly less than the church could have asked for, but enough to dazzle the church leaders into agreement without undue concern for the possible downsides.

No sooner were the zoning-variance notices posted than residents, especially school parents, were digging up research from groups like the Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR) Network, which has an exhaustive Web site, and writing articles about their findings in the Palisadian Post. The Los Angeles Unified School District, already embroiled in the Belmont fiasco, wasted no time banning the future placement of cell towers on or near its properties. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, it noted, had classified electromagnetic radiation as “a possible human carcinogen.”

 

That knocked Paul Revere Middle School out of the picture, but the battle at the Methodist Church was just heating up. According to Kathrin Werner, a film producer, mother of two children and political neophyte who spearheaded the Methodist campaign, the community only knew about the proposed tower through a notice posted on the church bulletin board in the last week of the school year. After reading up on the issue, she found herself becoming enraged. “I’m a fairly levelheaded person. I don’t get radical about anything,” she said. “But this is ultimately about greed, and that upsets me as a human being.”

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.

Whether the club is as ruthless as the neighbors make out is a matter of some debate. Apart from Jessica Teich, it does not appear anyone has been upbraided or thrown out of the club as a result of the cell-tower controversy. Mike Hyler, the general manager, said he knew of no instance of members being asked to leave for speaking their minds, on this issue or any other. But the members’ fear is palpable, not least because of a clause in the club’s bylaws granting it the right to expel anyone at will. “Trust me, we say anything, we rock the boat, we’re out,” was how Mike Rachmil, a film and television line producer who is part of the cell-tower campaign, characterized the prevailing view.

And relations between the club and the neighborhood have been strained for decades. In 1978, the club took the extraordinary step of inviting Chevron to prospect for oil on the club’s driving range. The idea was to construct a 150-foot derrick between two fairways that Chevron said would be painted “to match the trees.” Much of the neighborhood revolted, enlisting the Dolphin Group, the hard-

driving political PR firm, and persuading local celebrities, including Mel Brooks, to speak out. The arguments used then were not dissimilar to the ones deployed now: The club, they said, was shamelessly pursuing its own bottom line at the expense of the neighbors. After eight years of bitter fighting, the publication of an unflattering environmental-impact report finally persuaded Chevron to withdraw.

In 1988, a Japanese construction consortium bought the club from the Hathaway family for $108 million in a highly secretive purchase that scared the 600-odd members into thinking they would all be booted out to make way for new corporate members paying $250,000 each for memberships. The scare proved unfounded, but it set an uneasy tone with the new proprietor, Noboru Watanabe, who has remained a mostly absentee landlord. According to Rachmil, the Riviera has been operating at a loss for years and has never stopped looking for ways to increase revenue. “The club is in bad shape,” he said. The club itself refused to discuss its financial status.

 

In mid-March, the Riviera campaigners were dealt a disappointing setback. The zoning administrator ruled that he saw no impediment to the AT&T tower going ahead. The 16-page ruling shocked the neighborhood because it followed the phone company’s arguments — that the need for greater coverage was genuine, that there was no obvious alternative site, and that the proposed tower posed no threat except to human health (a consideration that was “out of bounds,” as per the Telecommunications Act) — hook, line and sinker. Following AT&T’s wording almost exactly, Dan Green dismissed concerns about diminishing property values with a brusqueness bordering on sarcasm. (Taking the cell-tower opponents’ argument to its logical conclusion, he wrote, “would preclude social interaction and civilization as we know it.”) He even brushed aside the misgivings of Councilwoman Miscikowski, who had asked tough questions about coverage overlaps with AT&T’s rivals. In fact, the only modification he demanded was that AT&T disguise the tower as a pine tree rather than a palm tree, because it would look nicer.

 

Michael Gendler, Jessica Teich’s entertainment-lawyer husband, was not entirely surprised by this setback. “Because the zoning administrator cannot look at health issues, and because he refused to look at property-value issues, we were deprived of our two best arguments,” he concluded glumly.

But the Riviera campaigners had advantages the likes of which other groups can only dream. For a start, money was no object. The environmental consultant hired at the outset cost several thousand dollars, and the banners and lawn signs several thousand more. The group was also blessedly unburdened by ideological agendas or factional infighting, the bane of many grassroots organizations. So their meetings were generally swift, efficient and to the point.

As political neophytes, they were not without their weaknesses, notably their desire not to give offense. This is, after all, a neighborhood of deeply conservative habits, with a disproportionate number of retirees who have spent whole lifetimes avoiding trouble. Many initially resisted the idea of erecting lawn signs, thinking them unsightly. Michael Jewison, a movie producer, worried about the slogans being too aggressive. “You can’t just disparage people in public!” he said, as though this would be the worst thing in the world.

In the end, the fighting spirit prevailed, especially after AT&T and the country club sought to denigrate the campaigners as a group of hysterical rich women with nothing better to do with their time than look for phony health scares and make futile attempts to hold back the tide of technology. Barring some sort of civil litigation, which looks unlikely, the 4-1 decision by the full Planning Commission to reject the cell-phone tower marks the end of the road for AT&T, at least at this site.

In the meantime, one of the least politicized social groups in this city was stirred into action — by corporate double-speak, by a country club that sometimes operates at cross purposes with its neighbors, and by a manifestly unfair system of government regulation distorted by special-interest lobbying. And they had a blast doing it.

“Here we were,” said Jessica Teich, with a glimmer of irony directed at her disdainful opponents, “all these suburban moms who never expected to be suburban moms, with an opportunity to use our brains before they are forever irradiated.”

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >