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Neighbors, church accuse Seattle of breaking own rules to site new cell tower

A proposed new cell tower is pitting neighbors, businesses and a nearby church against the city of Seattle and T-Mobile. (City Light photo rendering of proposed cell installation)

As the demand for the high-speed cellphone service across our area continues to grow, it’s creating a number of conflicts between telecommunications companies and the people who live, work, and play around the ever-increasing cell sites.

Father Oliver Duggan has plenty to worry about as the head of Assumption Catholic Church in Northeast Seattle.

So an application by T-Mobile to install a cell tower directly across the street from the church and 500 student school on NE 65th was the last thing on his mind.

“We found out about it from a parishioner who happens to work for the state and checks these things all the time. Otherwise, we would have been blank on it,” Duggan said.

He should have known if the city had done its job properly. The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections is required by city rules to post four large signs or placards at least 18 by 24 inches notifying the public of such a project. It is supposed to notify anyone within three hundred feet by mail.

But neighbor and parishioner Jessica Jackson says none of that happened.

“The process has not been followed here … and I think the city should follow the rules,” she said.

Jackson is a stay-at-home mom, and an attorney by trade. She began digging into what was going on after Father Duggan raised concerns.

She learned the city had posted just one small notice – an 8.5 by 11 inch, three -sheet paper notice stapled to the existing utility pole. It was wrapped in plastic and facing away from the school. So no one across the street at the church would ever see it.

She says it was posted Dec. 15, which started a two-week public comment period. But the church school had just begun winter break that day, so the comment period closed before families returned from the holidays and could have commented.

“It would be hard to believe that would be done as a coincidence. It seems to be purposeful,” Jackson said of the timing.

So Jackson launched a petition on Change.org, which garnered 250 signatures. And she reached out to the Department of Construction and Inspections but says she got nowhere.

“The city was just unresponsive or responded to us in a way that was very dismissive of our concerns,” she said.

The biggest concern for families and the church is the potential health effects of the proposed 70-foot tower.

While T-Mobile and the industry and the city assure that studies have not shown any adverse health effects associated with such cell sites, Jackson and Duggan argue there have been no long-term studies — especially when it comes to kids.

“The telephone company tells us, wow, there’s no problem. There’s nothing wrong with this, there’s going to be no radiation at all,” Duggan said.

“But medical people tell us maybe that’s not so at all. So there’s a big question there all the time and I think there’s a valuable question there that should be looked into.”

Despite the concerns, the Department of Construction and Inspections issued a recommendation to Seattle City Light this spring, which made the final determination to allow T-Mobile to install the new cell tower on a pole just outside the Bryant Corner Cafe.

And DCI says its recommendation was not appealable because it was merely a recommendation.

In an email, a department spokesperson said DCI mailed notices to 64 addresses, posted required signage and attended a community meeting organized by the church in March. But the department declined my request for an interview, referring me to City Light.

Sephir Hamilton, City Light’s officer of engineering and technology innovation, made the ultimate decision. He says the department went out of its way to consider all the issues.

“And we heard all of those concerns, weighed them against the benefit of additional cellphone coverage in this area, and ultimately concluded that after looking at many different poles, this was the best location — or the least-worst location — that T-Mobile could find,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton says the new pole will replace an existing one, just with multiple cellular antennas atop it.

He says the city worked with T-Mobile to reduce its height by 11 feet – from 70 to 59 feet.

“The feedback that we heard did result in some changes that I think lessen the impact, but it always is balancing the pros and cons. And in this case, we think this is the best location for that antenna,” Hamilton said.

The situation is far from unique. There have been numerous lawsuits and complaints filed about projects like this across our region. And Hamilton expects far more conflict as companies look to continue growing their services, especially with the coming move to 5G networks.

Hamilton points out there were a number of supporters for the project who just wanted better cell service.

But Jackson says there’s a far more fundamental issue: Whether people should have a greater say in what goes on in their neighborhoods.

“I feel like the process has not been respected at all and city officials are not following the law,” she said.

Councilmember Rob Johnson is vowing to change that. He attended a community meeting about the tower and promised change.

“We recognize this is probably the first of probably hundreds of cell towers that are going to go up from T-Mobile and other carriers around the city. And this is a precedent setting thing. And I believe there’s a better process, that in collaborating with the community, we can find better solutions,” he said.

But in this case, the new cell tower is going up, neighbors and the church be damned. Still, Father Duggan vows to keep raising concerns.

“It’s never too late, really, to listen to the people. If it was election time, we’d get listened to much better. But really, it’s never too late,” Duggan said.

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