The first call comes late on a Friday night. “Welcome back,” says Mark Dahlgren, the organist at St. Mary’s Shrine, who is nine months through the one year of probation he received for hugging a tree at Tom and Jan Ditzler’s farm (see “For Keeps! A Christian Defense of Property,” Views, April). “You probably haven’t heard the news.”

“What news?” I ask, dreading the tone of his voice.

“Oh, it’s nothing really. The city just wants to put a cell tower in my front yard.”

Well, not exactly, but close enough: The City of Rockford has entered into negotiations with Vertical Partners, a Minnesota company that sells space on cell towers to multiple cellular providers. Vertical Partners wants to market 13 sites around Rockford, most of them at city wells. One of those sites, City Well No. 10, sits less than 100 feet across the street from Mark’s house; the picture window in his living room faces the well.

“Are you going to help us or not?”

I have to admit that I have no particular animus against cell phones. I have stayed away from them mainly because I do not want people to be able to reach me at their convenience. Still, if I could snap my fingers and make all computers, televisions, and cell phones disappear, I would happily do so. As long as we have them around, however, I would not mind owning a Titanium PowerBook with a cable modem.

Mark is particularly concerned about the potential health risks of cellular radiation and a possible drop in property values. While there is no strong evidence that living near a cell tower might lead to illness, that may be because the technology is too new, and because the evolving nature of cellular communications makes an extensive longitudinal study nearly impossible. I can understand wanting to err on the side of caution, and I have no doubt that a house with a 150-foot cell tower marring its view would decline in value.

There is a larger principle at stake, however—the same one that led Mark to join in the fight to stop Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn’s plan to extend Perryville Road (see “Not in Your Back Yard,” Letter From Rockford, May). Why should the Dahlgrens and their neighbors have to put up with a cell tower for the convenience and enrichment of others?

“I’m happy to help, but I doubt you’re going to win this one,” I tell Mark. “Most people are going to be like me—relatively unconcerned about the health risks. As for property values, if their home won’t be affected, they probably won’t care.”

“What about all those people who showed up to fight Perryville? Won’t they come down to help?”

“Why should they? Just because you went up there? The only reason anyone who doesn’t live near one of these towers might get upset over this issue would be if the city were trying to pull a fast one. But it doesn’t sound like they are.”

When the second call comes a few days later, I discover I may have spoken too soon. (By now, after almost six years here in Rockford, I should know that there is always more to the story than what is reported in the local Gannett paper.) Sharon Schuldt, a local activist, is on the other end of the line.

“I just got off the phone with Einar Forsman”—Rockford’s city administrator—”and he told me these cell towers are a done deal. Apparently, the city has a written agreement with Vertical Partners. He also said that the city can’t refuse to approve a cell-tower site based on health concerns.”

“I wonder where he’s getting that from? The city ought be able to reject sites for almost any reason.”

I mention the agreement to Mark’s wife, Cecelia, and she picks up a copy from the city administrator’s office that afternoon. Later, Mark calls me.

“There doesn’t seem to be much in here. It doesn’t mention not being able to deny a site permit because of health concerns.”

“How long is it? Read it to me.”

It quickly becomes obvious why Einar Forsman thought the cell towers were a done deal. Under the agreement, the city had provided Vertical Partners (referred to as “VRE”) with a list of sites on which the company could consider placing cell towers. Vertical Partners then conducted some initial studies and gave the city a list (the “Database”) of the 13 sites the company wanted to market. Paragraph four of the agreement reads (in part):

Within thirty (30) Days of receipt of such Database, the Public Entity shall provide written notice to VRF of any Sites the Public Entity, in its sole discretion, deems inappropriate or unfeasible for use as a Site. Any Sites the Public Entity does not reject by providing written notice to VRE on or before the expiration date of the thirty (30) Day period will be deemed to be approved by the Public Entity . . . . The Public Entity agrees to work with VRE to develop alternative Sites for those locations the Public Entity has deemed insensitive or unsuitable [italics mine].

“What’s the date on the agreement?”

“June 12. Why?”

“Well, the sites were announced back on June 5 or 6, but the 30 days can’t start until the agreement is signed. Still, that means the city council has to notify Vertical Partners in writing by July 12 that it’s rejecting the sites. Otherwise, Vertical Partners can start marketing them, and then this thing is a done deal.”

“But today’s July 5!”

“And the council only meets once more before July 12, on Monday.”

Mark calls up Chris Bowman, a talkshow host for local radio station WNTA, who immediately recognizes the importance of the agreement. The next day, the Dahlgrens, Janine Schneider (a fellow parishioner at St. Mary’s Shrine and neighbor of the Dahlgrens), and Bob Whalen (an airline pilot and conservative activist) appear on Bowman’s show, and the lines light up with angry callers who see the 30-day clause as just another example of Rockford’s backroom politics. Chris devotes most of his radio show to the issue, and when he convinces Tom Poulos (the president of Vertical Partners) to go on the air, Poulos confirms that the 30-day period expires on July 12, though he claims that Vertical Partners will not enforce it.

Although Rockford is the state’s second-largest city, it has often been called the biggest small town in Illinois. Usually, that is meant as a put-down, but over the weekend, the Dahlgrens, Bob Whalen, Janine and Bob Schneider, and Francis Gillett, the Dahlgren’s retired neighbor, take full advantage of Rockford’s status, calling each of the 14 aldermen. By Monday, July 9, a much clearer picture has begun to emerge.

While the aldermen had unanimously voted to approve the agreement between the city and Vertical Partners at the city council meeting on June 11, none of them had seen the text. All agree that they had thought they were simply voting to open negotiations with Vertical Partners, not to enter into a binding agreement, and certainly not to put Vertical Partners in the driver’s seat by giving themselves only 30 days to reject potential sites.

Realizing that much of the opposition to the cell-tower plan centers on City Well No. 10, the Dahlgrens’ alderman, Dan Conness, schedules a public meeting for shortly after the city council meeting that night. Tom Poulos sends a letter to Mayor Doug Scott, acknowledging the 30-day clause and offering to extend it to 60 days. Still, many of the aldermen are concerned, if only because the fact that they never saw the agreement makes them look like rubber stamps. Before the council meeting ends. Aldermen Doug Mark and David Johnson introduce a resolution to amend the agreement, striking the 30-day clause.

At Alderman Conness’s public meeting, it becomes apparent that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. First, the issue extends well beyond the city. Tom Poulos explains that four other governmental bodies in the Rockford area (Winnebago County, School District 205, the Rockford Park District, and the Rockford Housing Authority) have previously signed the same agreement with Vertical Partners, and, in each case, the 30 days have already passed. He estimates the number of approved cell-tower sites at 40 to 50.

Second, the federal government has severely circumscribed the power of state and local governments to restrict the building of cell towers. Under U.S. law (47 U.S.C, sect. 332(c)(7)),

The regulation of the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities by and [sic] State or local government or instrumentally thereof . . . shall not prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the provision of personal wireless services.

Moreover, as Einar Forsman had indicated to Sharon Schuldt, the city is essentially not allowed to make decisions about cell towers based on the environmental and health issues that concern the Dahlgrens:

No State or local government or instrumentality thereof may regulate the placement, construction, or modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the I Federal Communications] Commission’s regulations concerning such emissions.

While Forsman and City Legal Director Ron Schultz assure the aldermen that they will have to approve each cell tower individually before construction can begin, many of the aldermen are clearly beginning to question whether, under federal law, they would be able to stop the construction. That, combined with their anger over not seeing the agreement before they voted (and Ron Schultz’s claim that such agreements do not need to be distributed to the aldermen before a vote), seems to have turned the tide.

It takes another three weeks, but at the city council meeting on July 30, the aldermen vote unanimously to reject the eight cell-tower sites in residential neighborhoods. They approve the rest, though, which are in industrial and rural areas.

After the vote, Bob Greene, chairman of the council’s finance and personnel committee (where the cell-tower proposal was first considered), rises. “I would just like to note for the record, your honor, that the process worked.” The snickers from the gallery are audible, because the truth, of course, is exactly the opposite: If it had not been for the persistence of a handful of concerned citizens, July 12 would have passed without notice.

As we leave the council chambers, Mark Dahlgren is noticeably relieved, but he is not ready to rest on his laurels. Just behind City Well No. 10 lies Alpine Park, one of the highest points in the city and, thus, a prime site for a cell tower. We still do not know what sites, if any, the Rockford Park District has approved. In Rockford, the battle never really ends.