Coverage in Cabrini

A proposed cell tower has a midtown neighborhood torn over potential health risks

Marc Haberman knows a thing or two about energy.

For the past 30 years, he's worked as a holistic health practitioner, and his house in the 3100 block of East Presidio Road has served as the Tucson Natural Bed and Breakfast for 25 years.

Anyone who's set foot in Haberman's home knows that the shoes come off at the door, a precautionary measure to keep outdoor energies separate from the indoor kind.

Haberman likes where he lives, in the Cabrini neighborhood near Country Club and Fort Lowell roads. He co-founded the Cabrini Neighborhood Association and has been its president for the past 13 years. He said his mission is to make the neighborhood a safe place to live and to improve the quality of life for residents.

But the looming possibility of an AT&T cell tower right across the street at St. Frances Cabrini Roman Catholic Church has Haberman and about 200 other neighborhood residents concerned about possible health risks from the tower.

Plans to install the tower were announced last September through a notice mailed to residents living within 300 feet of the proposed location. Haberman, who lives directly across the street, didn't like the message.

"When the intention of constructing a cell tower was announced, we really saw that as questionable," Haberman said. "The more I researched it, the more I found out, the more concerned I became."

Haberman's concerns are based on research that suggests people living near cell towers can develop neurological diseases and even cancer. The theory has yet to be widely adopted in the scientific community.

Haberman also discovered that he wasn't alone in his concerns. Within 12 hours of receiving his notice, he had contacted Elizabeth Kelley, a Tucsonan who has advocated against cellphone towers in residential areas since the mid-'90s.

Kelley has remained in the forefront of advocacy for electromagnetic radiation safety, co-founding the Electromagnetic Safety Alliance, a nationwide organization. After winning a battle in 1996 against Sprint for installing a tower at the church she attended in California, Kelley went on to appeal FCC standards for cell towers, going as far as the Supreme Court.

Those standards include a provision in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that prohibits city and state agencies from considering health risks when approving or denying an application for a cell tower.

Kelley cites a 2011 article in Science of the Environment, a peer-reviewed journal. The article examined deaths from cancer in the vicinity of cell towers in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and found that residents living closest to the towers had the greatest risk.

Haberman said he and Kelley have been trying to educate Cabrini residents about the tower's alleged health risks and have collected about 200 signatures from neighbors who oppose the tower.

Although their efforts have swayed some opinions, other residents said they have no problem with a tower.

Fran Garcia lives three blocks east of Haberman's house. Until the cell tower became an issue, Garcia had served with Haberman on the neighborhood association's steering committee. Garcia stepped down after becoming disgruntled by how Haberman chose to protest the tower installation, saying he had become "dictator" of the association.

"As a neighborhood association, you need to be calming people, you need to be neutral on these hot-button political issues," Garcia said. "Instead, he's going out and he's frightening our residents. ... He's formed a group; he has opposition signage that is terrifically offensive (displayed) outside of his home; he started having protests at the church at Mass time."

Garcia claims the conflict has ruined the neighborhood association's relationship with the church, which had provided the association with a meeting place and other resources. St. Francis officials declined to comment on the dispute. AT&T would pay the church for the use of its land.

Karen Kruse, a spokeswoman for AT&T, said the cell tower's purpose was to fill gaps in AT&T's coverage so that customers have a "world-class experience," and emphasized that the company is following FCC guidelines.

"We fall far below what ... the FCC has determined to be even remotely dangerous for human consumption," Kruise said.

But as far as Kelley is concerned, those guidelines are aren't strict enough.

The Cabrini neighborhood is represented on the Tucson City Council by Karin Uhlich, who said she supports a resolution recently proposed by the Pima County Board of Supervisors that would allow the county's health department to examine public health risks from structures like cell towers.

Uhlich added that she'd like to see neighbors work toward a resolution among themselves.

The tower still needs approval from the City Council, which could vote on the issue April 18. Until then, Kelley and Haberman said they plan to spark more public discussion about the risks the tower poses.

"I know some very smart people living there have said that they're just going to move, that they don't feel comfortable living there now," Kelley said. "They're afraid."

Meanwhile, neighbors like Garcia say opposition to the tower is useless. "The Catholic Church is not going to step aside because of Mr. Marc Haberman," Garcia said. "They need this money in order to carry on."

The issue has "really turned into a nasty little dispute, and it's a shame," Garcia added, "because the neighborhood is going to suffer for it."