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Plan to Erect Antenna Is Opposed : Communication: Parents and residents fight proposal for cellular tower near preschool. AirTouch officials say they will enforce agreement.


A group of angry parents and residents is fighting a plan to build a 60-foot cellular phone antenna on the grounds of a Westwood neighborhood church that houses a preschool.

Parents and neighbors contend that the tower, which would be disguised as a palm tree, could pose a health risk to the school's 90 children and nearby residents.

The plan to erect the antenna at Westwood Presbyterian Church in the 10000 block of Wilshire Boulevard has generated so much opposition that church officials are trying to cancel the deal, signed last month with AirTouch Cellular.

AirTouch officials, however, said they have begun paying rent and intend to enforce the agreement, which they consider legally binding. Meanwhile, city zoning officials are reviewing the plans and will decide at the end of the month whether to allow the tower to be built.

"I can't believe that they would put children at risk," said Laura Lake, a member of Friends of Westwood, a nonprofit community group that focuses on environmental issues.

"There's major scientific debate about the risks of microwave radiation," said Lake, who has two children attending the preschool. "When in doubt, you don't put children at risk."

Tamar Hoffs, who lives behind the church, said she is concerned about a possible increase in cancer risk from the cellular transmissions. "I live at a spot where this antenna is going to be beaming on me 24 hours a day," she said. "I just feel uncomfortable about this."

Church officials deny placing the health of residents at risk. "The only reason [church officials] voted not to proceed with the process was in an effort to allay parents' emotional fears," said Ida Toporek, the church's business manager.

AirTouch representatives say the company's more than 400 towers in Southern California are not dangerous and are necessary to keep up with the boom in cellular phone users in the area. "There isn't any scientific evidence that links cellular tower transmissions to health hazards," said AirTouch spokeswoman Melissa May.

Scientific research on the issue of health risks is contradictory, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in San Francisco. Cellular phones and other transmitters, such as radios, produce electromagnetic fields, but scientists have yet to reach a consensus on whether such electromagnetic fields increase the risk of cancer.

Westwood residents are waging the latest round in a growing fight over the proliferation of cellular phone antennas and their effects on public health and property values.

In recent years, a number of concerned residents in the Los Angeles County area have joined to block installation of the so-called cell sites, which have been placed on scores of office rooftops--and in some cases school and church yards--to relay cellular phone signals.

Last month, Van Nuys residents and merchants successfully blocked plans by AirTouch Cellular to install a 45-foot antenna in their neighborhood. In Northridge, public outcry against the construction of a 75-foot cellular tower at a church prompted AirTouch to find another location. Last year, the Los Angeles City Council denied a proposed transmission site in Hollywood after neighborhood activists cited cancer fears but approved a similar tower near Marina del Rey.

Complaints against the towers range from potential health risks associated with electromagnetic emissions to aesthetic concerns that the gigantic metallic poles are eyesores that lower property values.

In the latest battle, Westwood zoning administrator Jon Perica said he could not consider health and safety issues in granting a permit for the tower.

"I can only consider issues such as the design, appearance and height of the tower, and if it is compatible with community standards," he said. "We are not experts on evaluating medical or scientific research. We are a planning department, not a medical department."

Ultimately, the issue may be played out before the City Council or the state Public Utilities Commission if either side appeals the planning department's decision, Perica said.

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