Camas hearings examiner OKs ‘stealth’ cell tower

AT&T will cellular site inside 88-foot bell tower at Camas Methodist Church

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An illustration shows the current Camas Methodist Church (left) and the church as it would appear with a 60-foot cellular tower disguised by an 88-foot, brick bell tower, spire and cross (right). (Contributed photo courtesy of the city of Camas)

Camas Hearings Examiner Joe Turner has approved a conditional-use permit to construct an AT&T “stealth-designed” cellular tower at the Camas Methodist Church near downtown Camas.

The future cell tower will be disguised inside an 88-foot bell tower with a church spire and cross on the side of the church, and will replace the existing communications facility on the nearby Garver Theater rooftop at 1612 N.E. Garfield St., in Camas.

The Garver Theater cellular lease expires Nov. 1, 2028, and AT&T has been seeking a replacement site that would give the same coverage and easily “hand off” the cellular signal to nearby towers.

At a public hearing held Feb. 15, Turner heard testimony from city of Camas staff, the applicant and community members who supported or opposed the conditional-use permit.

Sharon Gretch, with Smartlink Group, LLC, spoke on behalf of AT&T Wireless.

“The existing site we have on Garver Theater is going to be decommissioned. The use will be terminated soon,” Gretch said. “So, we were trying to get a headstart on that.”

The site at the Camas Methodist Church closely mimics the coverage area and service provided by the Garver Theater site, Gretch said, and could even improve cell coverage south of the site, in downtown Camas.

Gretch said there were nine other sites the company explored before settling on the church bell tower idea. Those sites included a BNSF tower that was too low to provide adequate coverage; two utility poles that also were too low; Crown Park, which would have needed a 150-foot tower “to clear the height of the trees,” according to Gretch; Benson Park, which was determined to be too far away and would have needed a 200-foot tower; another church that could have met the coverage requirements, but that AT&T worried would be too difficult to hand off to adjacent towers; Riverview Bank in downtown Camas, which would not have been tall enough; the Safeway parking lot, “which, again, was too far away and doesn’t meet our coverage objectives,” Gretch said; and a third church too far outside the coverage range.

Camas Methodist Pastor Don Shipley testified before the hearings examiner that he also lived across the street from the church and was in favor of the cell tower project.

“We had been approached by (AT&T) some time ago, that were trying to find a suitable site to provide an alternative site to the one on the Garver building,” Shipley said. “We were pleased that we could provide that site.”

Shipley said he is happy his church can provide a site that will give the neighborhood reliable cellular coverage and also that the tower could possibly provide cellular service for police and fire department staff in the event of an emergency.

“We were mindful of the fact that there would be an aesthetic issue, but were pleased to find that the tower would be disguised to make sure it wouldn’t be an eyesore for the neighboring community.”

Shipley said the tower also will, through the lease with AT&T, provide “needed funds” for his church.

“I’m in favor of it,” Shipley told the hearings examiner.

Another neighbor, Bonnie Jean Ione, had concerns about the proposed cell tower.

“I live directly west of the church,” Ione told Turner. “And I’ve been concerned about this from the beginning.”

Ione’s main concern, she said, involved possible health concerns related to cellular towers.

“There have been studies … and this could be potentially (damaging) for children,” Ione said. “I do think there is a possibility there will be a class-action lawsuit if, at some point, there is a percentage of children who end up with brain cancer.”

Ione said she also worried the tower would lead to depreciated home values in the immediate area, including to her own home.

The World Health Organization has said research shows “no adverse health effects have been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies,” and that it does not believe current levels of 5G are a danger to public health.

Turner said federal law prevents him from even considering health issues when it comes to cellular tower placements.

“The health impacts of this wireless facility are not something I can consider,” Turner said. “Federal law states that, if it meets (the Federal Communications Commission’s) standards, the City cannot consider health effects.”

The company said the new tower would include AT&T’s 850MHz low-band, fifth-generation (5G) technology.

“Low-band 5G frequencies are the oldest cellular frequencies and are being used by AT&T to provide widely available 5G service in residential, suburban and rural areas,” the company stated in its report to the City. “This is the same spectrum being used for 3G and 4G cellular services today. … Low-band 5G frequencies are a tradeoff of download speed versus distance and service area — they are slower than the high-band and mid-band frequencies, but they travel the farthest and can pass through more obstacles and provide a better, more reliable indoor and outdoor signal for a larger service area.”

Ione, who also sent an email about the proposed cell tower to city of Camas staff in November 2023, also said she was concerned about noise from the tower.

In its materials presented to the City, AT&T included a noise report conducted by Capital Design Services, which concluded that, although the cell tower will use condensing units “expected to run 24 hours a day,” the tower would be within the required daytime and nighttime noise limits.

“The City does limit noise, and there is a limitation to how much noise this thing can produce … and the applicant has provided studies that they meet those (requirements),” Turner said. “I understand the concerns with health effects, but that is not something I can consider as federal law has preempted that. … I’m going to approve the application subject to meeting considerations noted in the staff report.”