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February 20, 2004

Family says cell antennas would signal trouble

From: San Diego Union Tribune, CA - Feb 20, 2004


MOUNT HELIX – With his cochlear implant, 8-year-old Blake Thomas can hear his parents call his name, even if he's playing in his front yard with cars whizzing on Conrad Avenue nearby.

But his mother, Kim Thomas, fears that Blake, who was born deaf, might not hear her if cell antennas proposed by Sprint are installed down the street. She worries that they will interfere with the FM system she uses to communicate with her son.

"Blake has enough challenges in his life that we don't need to live with cell tower interference," Thomas said. "This truly could be dangerous."

Thomas and her husband, Pete, will attend a county Planning Commission meeting today to express their concerns about the antennas.

Their worries are much more than neighbors' usual fears about declining property values if a cell site is built. They say their son's life could be dramatically affected.

Blake is an active, tow-headed boy who likes to read and play video games. He attends Maryland Avenue Elementary School, where he learns math and spelling in a mainstream classroom, then takes speech classes for the deaf.

He had the cochlear implant surgically placed in his head two years ago. In a quiet room, he can hear without the aid of an FM system that transmits the speaker's voice from a microphone to his brain. But at school or while playing outside, he needs the FM system to hear and understand.

The manufacturer of the FM system told the Thomases in a letter that having a cell site nearby would lessen the effectiveness of the device, reducing its transmission range and possibly causing static.

Pete Thomas said he doesn't see a need for the cell antennas when Sprint already has good coverage in Mount Helix for its cell phones, and its Internet connections are running at top speed.

"If their latest and greatest works at this phenomenal speed, then they should leave it alone," he said.

A Sprint representative did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

In addition to the antennas on Conrad Drive, Sprint also wants to install a site on Edgewood Drive in Mount Helix.

The antennas are opposed by the Valle de Oro planning group, an advisory body that makes recommendations to the county on land-use issues. It is also opposed by the Grossmont-Mount Helix Improvement Association, a neighborhood association.

Despite that opposition, the county zoning administrator approved the antenna projects in December. The planning group appealed the decision, and the issue was brought to the county Planning Commission.

In papers presented to the commission, the zoning administrator said the county cannot deny a cellular telephone facility based on health issues. The level of radio frequency is reviewed and regulated by the federal government.

Jack Phillips, chairman of the Valle de Oro planning group, said Sprint officials promised they would not build more cell sites in Mount Helix after a site was approved in November 2002 at Fuerte Drive and Grandview Avenue. Phillips said he was skeptical at the time.

"We could look at their existing system, and we predicted that this wouldn't be true, that there would be more sites in our Mount Helix neighborhoods," Phillips said. "If we could predict it, certainly Sprint must have known it."

The zoning administrator noted that Sprint said it would be replacing more than 50 cell antennas with 11 sites in Mount Helix, including the two sites being discussed by the Planning Commission.

The Thomases' neighbors have joined them in opposing the cell antenna on their street, and several wrote letters urging that it be rejected. Dan Hyatt, who lives down the street, said Sprint has not considered the effect the cell antennas will have on Blake.

"Sprint is turning a deaf ear to a deaf child," he said.

© Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.