GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - Neighbors of Monument Baptist Church on the Redlands are upset about plans to install cellular antennas inside a new 55-foot-tall belfry the church intends to build on its northwest corner.
Hank and Judy Drake were dismayed to learn cellphone radio frequency antennas would be placed within 74 feet of their property - though hidden within the bell tower.
When the Drakes built their dream house three years ago, their son and his family also planned at some point to build a house on the one-acre lot. Now, those plans are on hold because of concerns about potential health risks associated with cell towers. The Drakes are especially concerned about radiation exposure to their grandchildren.
Another adjoining property owner, Willard Pease, said he is also concerned about potential health hazards as well as devaluation of his property.
None of the three abutting property owners were notified of the project.
Lyda Lafferty grows lavender in the neighborhood and raises bees for honey. She's concerned about possible radiation effects on her bees.
"It concerns me that someone can come into a residential area and do something like that," Lafferty said.
The Drakes learned of the project when they saw a backhoe operator breaking ground on the church property in early December.
Monument Baptist pastor, the Rev. Ray Shirley, said agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and Center for Disease Control have not found health problems associated with cell towers. However, Shirley is aware there are dissenting opinions on the topic.
"Who are we going to trust? Who are we going to believe?" Shirley said. "We trust our government agencies militarily, with our retirement, health care, so why wouldn't we trust them for this?"
While the FCC asserts there is no evidence linking cancer to wireless devices, many researchers state otherwise. The Los Angeles Times reported in December that the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
As more and more people use wireless devices such as smartphones and tablets, wireless companies are increasingly placing cellular antennas inside church steeples and bell towers across the country - in areas they'd otherwise not be allowed. Churches are exempt from height restrictions that are placed on stand-alone cellphone towers.
Installing the technology inside bell towers or steeples is seen as a way to "camouflage" the antennas. Companies like Verizon pay churches anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 per month to lease the space, said Ken Schmidt, president of Steel in the Air, a consulting firm that assists landowners with cell site issues.
Shirley would not disclose how much Verizon is paying the church.
The financial incentive had nothing to do with the decision, Shirley said.
"We did not do this for the money," he said. "Personally, I want a better cell signal.
"Verizon approached us, and asked us to consider it," Shirley said. "And why wouldn't we?"
According to Mesa County Planning Department's land use code, "telecom facilities are a prohibited use in RSF4 zoned areas," like Drake's neighborhood.
The code also states that telecom "facilities" can be no less than 200 feet from residentially zoned property, and that the applicant (Verizon) must show evidence of written notice to all abutting properties within 500 feet.
Linda Dannenberger, Mesa County land use and development division director, said she and the affected neighbors interpret the code differently. Telecom "structures" are considered different than telecom "facilities," she said. The church's cellular site is considered a structure, which is allowable, she said.
In fact, for aesthetic reasons "the code encourages placement of attached telecommunication facilities in an existing geographical feature," she said.
As far as health concerns, Dannenberger said standards have not been set for officials to follow regarding electromagnetic field emissions.
Drake said neighbors were purposely kept in the dark, and that he had even asked Shirley whether he had plans to lease space for a cellphone tower after hearing rumors of such.
Shirley told the Drakes there were no plans at that time and he'd let them know if that changed, Drake said.
"When he said that, his signature was already on the paperwork authorizing Verizon to be his agent," Drake noted.
During a phone interview Tuesday, Shirley told the Free Press that at that point he "thought it was a dead deal."
The county had shot down Verizon's first design plan, and although he'd signed the paperwork and "knew it could still happen, he didn't know if or when" it would happen, he said.
Verizon spokesman Bob Kelley said zoning on the site was approved in March 2012, and the project is expected to be completed by mid-May.
Drake posted a large sign on his property with an arrow pointing to the church stating: "This church sold out its neighbors for a cell phone tower. Shame on them! It's all about the money."
"I feel like the church people were dishonest and underhanded about this," Drake said.
Shirley said neither Verizon nor Mesa County told him it was not necessary to notify nearby neighbors.
"It's our property," Shirley said. "If we'd been told there was something we needed to do, we would have done it."
The neighborhood coalition has asked to meet with Mesa County commissioners to discuss the issue.