Live WireWireless technology and cellular towers transfix Santa Fe
When it comes to garnering national attention of the comedic variety, Santa Fe has a reputation to uphold. Whether it’s leash laws for cats, permits for panhandlers or drug raids on tomatoes grown by schoolchildren, the City Different has a history of handing out easy one-liners for late-night talk show hosts.
We began 2010 with a doozy, when local activist Arthur Firstenberg sued his neighbor Raphaela Monribot over the use of her iPhone. Firstenberg claimed to be physically suffering whenever Monribot trolled for data in the house next door. The lawsuit quickly went viral over the blogosphere, complete with implied eye-rolling and the tag line “only in Santa Fe” [SFReporter.com/wifi].
But as city officials this past spring heard public input regarding a proposed new telecommunications ordinance, it became clear that Santa Fe is a “hot spot” in the growing, global movement decrying the health effect of cellular and wireless technologies. The reams of evidence put forward at public meetings—both to prove the potential for harm and to demonstrate the safety of such technologies—created a public dialogue that carried on throughout the year and shows no signs of diminishing.
On June 9, Santa Fe Mayor David Coss cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of adopting the telecommunications ordinance, with the stipulation that a mayor-appointed task force develop a strategic plan for implementing distributed antenna systems and new cellular towers.
Although members were appointed to the task force—or Communications Franchise Advisory Committee—Qwest Corp. almost immediately filed a lawsuit against the city, as it did the last time the city approved a telecommunications ordinance, in 2002. City of Santa Fe Marketing and Information Director Joyce Bond says task force meetings have been halted “until the lawsuit with Qwest is settled.”
In the meantime, opponents of cellular and wireless technology have formed a group of their own, the Santa Fe Alliance for Public Health and Safety (whyfry.org).
“Dozens of city councils are blocking new cell towers for six months to a year, to protect their communities,” alliance member Felicia Trujillo says. “Santa Fe is the only city that is shortening notification of new towers from one month to 15 days, and basically rubber-stamping all new towers. Data from eight- and 10-year studies by US health agencies will be published this year…Most cell tower contracts are for 30 years and difficult to break. We need a moratorium, not a rubber stamp of two weeks.”
The group has been effective in stopping a planned tower for the Solana Center and in blocking a proposed tower in Fort Marcy Park.
The Fort Marcy effort was bolstered by the presence of a fire station and the International Association of Firefighters’ position that cellular towers in proximity to stations have negative effects on the health of firefighters.
Santa Fe Fire Department Chief Barbara Salas declined to comment.
Public safety related to first responders is a concern of the Federal Communications Commission as well, but not in the same way. The National Broadband Plan, adopted this year by the FCC, argues for the creation of ubiquitous, nationwide, wireless networks. The plan states, “Careful planning and strong commitment could create a cutting-edge public safety communications system to allow first responders anywhere in the nation to communicate with each other, sending and receiving critical voice, video and data to save lives, reduce injuries and prevent acts of crime and terror.”
The FCC’s plans mirror local momentum. Several northern New Mexico counties and tribal communities, including Santa Fe, are currently using American Recovery and Reinvestment funds to improve broadband infrastructure.
City of Santa Fe Economic Development Division Director Fabian Trujillo says broadband infrastructure is “probably the most critical component we need in Santa Fe for strong economic development.” However, Trujillo stresses that a hard-wired backbone and a fiber-optic network are the city’s priority.
“Wireless can be an important part of such a system,” he says, “but our priority is getting hard-wired connectivity.”
Ultimately, alliance members may be barking up the wrong tree. Federal statute bars local governments from making decisions based on the perceived health effects of communications technology.
If activists are hoping for local legal precedent, they’ll have to wait a bit longer: 1st Judicial Court Judge Sarah Singleton will decide Firstenberg’s lawsuit against his neighbor in March 2011.