Arlington, VA

County staff is recommending that the County Board approve AT&T’s request to put new cell phone antennas in a pair of North Arlington church steeples.

Last month the company went before the board to request permission to replace older antennas and equipment at 15 existing cell sites around the county. The equipment will allow AT&T to offer high speed ‘Long Term Evolution’ (LTE) data service to cell phone customers in Arlington. The board approved the replacement at 13 of the sites, but withdrew two for further consideration after a number of neighbors voiced opposition.

The two sites in question are both churches: the Westover Baptist Church (1125 Patrick Henry Drive) and Walker Chapel United Methodist Church (4102 N. Old Glebe Road). AT&T already has cell phone antennas in the steeples of both churches, but neighbors objected to what they saw as the possible health risks of the new antennas. Those opposing antennas at Walker Chapel also cited the historic nature of the 140-year-old church, even though the building itself is just over 50 years old.

Ultimately, county staff sided with AT&T, which argued that the new antennas will not be substantially heavier than the existing antennas — thus posing no anticipated structural problems — and will remain compliant with FCC regulations regarding radio frequency exposure.

“AT&T will contribute less than five percent of the maximum permissible exposure allowed,” staff wrote in the board report. The company agreed to annual, independent electromagnetic emission tests at all 15 sites to ensure compliance.

Last week’s revelation that the World Health Organization now considers cell phone use to be “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” however, will likely only serve to increase the resolve of antenna opponents. Even if the County Board wanted to decide the matter on the basis of health concerns, however, it is legally prohibited from doing so. According to the board report, federal law “prohibits localities from basing decisions on the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions if the facility complies with FCC regulations.”

The board is scheduled to consider the cell antenna requests on Saturday.

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