As cellphone towers shoot up around the Bay Area, so-called stealth antennas have grown in popularity.
Antennas can be concealed behind phony brick walls and inside flag poles, faux boulders, street lamps, grain silos, gas station signs, fake trees and cacti, and even church steeples.
While public resistance to cellphone towers is often related to potential health effects, a federal law making it virtually impossible for cities to reject the devices on health grounds has transformed the terms of debate.
“We’ve been told very clearly that we can’t reject antennas on the basis of health,” Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel said. “The issue of aesthetics is one which we can discuss.”
But stealth antennas make that argument harder to win.
Last month in Daly City, citizens used aesthetics to persuade the City Council to deny Verizon a use permit to construct a new antenna inside a fake pine tree. In response, Verizon’s lawyers threatened the city with a lawsuit.
The council will reconsider the issue Monday. But Daly City Director of Economic and Community Development Richard Berger said city staff will recommend the council approve the tower, partly because the antenna meets city codes that favor stealth antennas.
In recent years, several cities, including San Francisco, have debated putting antennas on church property. Next month, Daly City’s Holy Child and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church will ask the City Council to approve an enlargement of its second antenna.
“We meet here every Sunday just below the roof where the antennas are,” vicar Leonard Oakes said.
The popularity of steeples stems partly from municipal zoning ordinances that require cellphone towers to be some distance from homes. Money also is a factor.
“The nonprofits are the ones who are most open because, as you can imagine, they can use the revenue,” said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies consulting.
For instance, Oakes said his church makes $3,000 a month off just one of its antennas.
In the case of churches, it has given rise to a new industry. SteepleCom, a company that brings telecommunications companies and churches together, says it has negotiated 800 antenna sites.
“We can get you sites where no one else can get them,” the company claims. “We have been able to cut through much red tape due to the simple fact that if the mayor is in the choir, zoning is never a problem.”
SteepleCom’s boast highlights the struggle telecoms face in erecting towers that consumers demand but communities often resist.
“Everybody wants better cellphone coverage, but nobody wants towers in front of their house,” Nagel said. Burlingame has declared a temporary moratorium on tower construction.
AT&T expects eight to 10 times more cellphone data traffic by 2015, suggesting that the number of towers hasn’t peaked.
“It’s become increasingly important that we blend in with natural landscapes,” AT&T spokeswoman Georgia Taylor said. AT&T has invested more than $775 million around the Bay Area in the past four years, she said.
Where stealth antennas are hidden: