CAMAS — In May 2017, Clark County Community Development prepared a pre-application report for a proposed 120-foot Verizon cell tower. The report offered a warning:
“Woodburn Elementary is right across from the site,” the report reads. “While there is no code requirement for spacing from schools, this may (elicit) a response from the neighbors.”
The prediction has manifested over the past three months. As Acom Consulting prepares to submit a conditional use permit application to the county on Verizon’s behalf, a growing number of parents are voicing concerns about the potential for harmful health effects from the tower. It would be about 300 feet from the school of roughly 500 students.
“It’s not proven to be safe,” said Tammy Distler, who has two children attending Woodburn. “We just want to protect the kids.”
Neighbors near the site at 2413 S.E. 283rd Ave. in Camas received letters from Acom about the proposed tower around Halloween. Since then, parents have started a letter-writing campaign, Facebook group and an online petition that had garnered 868 signatures as of Friday afternoon. They’ve also held signs in protest near the site, left negative reviews of the property owner’s business and attended contentious public meetings Acom held as required by the pre-application process.
“It’s all very, very new,” said Tanya Ligouri, who also has two children attending Woodburn. “We found each other, came together and are figuring this all out.”
The intensifying reaction to the tower prompted Woodburn Elementary School Principal Brian Graham to send an email to parents Jan. 14.
“You may have heard that there is a proposal to place a new cell tower on property near our elementary school, which has generated interest both for and against the tower’s location,” Graham wrote. “The property in question and its use are in the county’s jurisdiction.”
The tower, disguised as a pine tree, would be on a 35-by-35-foot area of a 26-acre property. Acom is negotiating a lease with the property owners, Ken and Gabrielle Navidi, said Reid Stewart, a site acquisition specialist for the consulting company.
Ken Navidi said he was approached about the tower four years ago. He said he also has heard that the previous owner of the land was approached about a tower.
“What’s to stop (Verizon) from popping across the street or popping to the next neighbor?” Ken Navidi said. “They came to me, so I started talking to them.”
The area surrounding the school features poor or no cell service for customers, Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato said. She added that a tower would significantly improve voice and data services within a 1 1/2 -mile radius.
“As more people are doing more things, in more places, with more mobile devices, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in voice and data traffic on our network,” Flato wrote in an email. “We only expect that trend to increase. To support the growing demand, it’s often necessary to build new wireless facilities (cell sites) where customers want and need to use our service.”
Flato said the company “takes very seriously the health and safety of our employees and customers, and of all residents in the communities we serve,” and that the tower plans meet Federal Communications Commission safety standards.
“The research continues to this day, and agencies continue to monitor it,” Flato said. “Based on that research, federal agencies have concluded that equipment that complies with the safety standards poses no known health risks.”
A public meeting Wednesday at the Camas Public Library drew about 100 people, some of whom brought children. Tensions were palpable both at the meeting, when attendees accused Stewart of being “flippant,” and after, with Ken Navidi saying that some of the opposition’s actions have amounted to “bullying” his family.
Stewart and physicist Andrew Thatcher, who specializes in environmental and occupational health and speaks at public meetings for various clients such as Acom, attempted to allay the concerns of most people in the room.
Thatcher said the energy of the radio-frequency waves admitted from the antennas — the same as those used by FM radio and television transmissions — would be far too low to break chemical bonds in the body or disrupt DNA.
“There is zero uncertainty about whether this can cause cancer or not,” Thatcher said amid the sound of children playing just outside the meeting room. “We’re taking an objective look at the science, and it’s really an easy call.”
Sam Bearbower, who lives near the school and held a baby for much of the meeting, pushed back against the idea that the scientific conclusions are definite.
“There’s a lot of people in this crowd that have read the reports and do find them concerning,” Bearbower said. “We’re not opposing cell towers. We’re opposing the placement of cell towers.”
Few studies have focused on the connection between cellphone towers and cancer risks, according to the American Cancer Society. In 2011, the World Health Organization classified wireless radiation as “possibly carcinogenic,” although a link to cancer has not been widely established in humans. It remains a topic of active research.
Last year, Sprint shut down a cell tower near an elementary school in Rippon, Calif., where four students and three teachers had been diagnosed with cancer since 2016, according to the Modesto Bee. While a link between the cancers and the tower was not established in that case, cell towers near schools have prompted numerous opposition campaigns throughout the United States.
“We’re like, ‘Why take the chance?’” Distler said.
Instead, parents have called for the tower to be moved at least 1,500 feet away from the school, a distance restriction adopted by numerous governments and based on several studies. The Navidis, however, have not been willing to entertain placing the tower behind a row of trees on the property.
Ken Navidi said Verizon sought the part of the property at a lower elevation because it wanted to have the best possible service at the school, which is located downslope from the property’s highest point.
“That’s not where (Verizon) wanted to put it,” he said. “They were hoping to have reception in the valley.”
Stewart said he plans to submit the application within 90 days. At that point, it will be reviewed by the county in a public process.
“If I meet the code requirements of the county, there’s not much they can do to stop this,” Stewart said at the meeting, adding that he has a 100 percent success rate on land-use applications for towers.
Still, the tower is ripe for considerable discussion and debate.
“If we make noise, maybe they’ll go to a place that’s a bit quieter,” Distler said.