Opponents of cell phone antennas proposed for Ashland Shopping Center are encouraging a big turnout tonight as the Ashland Planning Commission debates and possibly votes on the issue.

Opponents of cell phone antennas proposed for Ashland Shopping Center are encouraging a big turnout tonight as the Ashland Planning Commission debates and possibly votes on the issue.

In the meeting that begins at 7 p.m. in council chambers at 1175 E. Main St., the commission will debate whether it can consider economic impacts on surrounding businesses and whether service provider AT&T has proven it can't locate the antennas alongside others elsewhere.

The commission will not take public testimony tonight. The meeting will be viewable live on Rogue Valley Community Television Channel 9.

The issue has brought out hundreds of people to meetings over the last two months — and hundreds of letters, almost all in opposition to the proposal that sites 12 antennas atop Ashland Street Cinema in the shopping center.

Rod Newton, leader of the opposition and owner of the adjacent Hidden Springs Wellness Center, said if the siting is approved, he will appeal it to the City Council and, if necessary, to the state Land Use Board of Appeals. He said his argument would be that city law requires co-location — the siting of such antennas near existing antennas — unless applicants substantially demonstrate it isn't possible.

"AT&T is essentially making a mockery of city laws (on co-location) and despite over 600 letters against it, they're just sending more reasons in favor of it to the Planning Department and ignoring the will of Ashland people," said Newton.

The underlying concern of opponents is based on possible health impacts of such technology, but "the Telecommunications Act of 1996 expressly preempts local government regulation of the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions," wrote city planner Derek Severson, in a memo to the commission for tonight's meeting.

Thwarted from opposing the site for health concerns, opponents have said the antennas would impact business, especially among holistic health businesses in the area.

However, Severson said in his memo that the commission must decide whether business impacts can be considered separately from "larger concerns over the environmental/health impacts" — or if one creates the other, thus possibly making both fall under a federal ban on denial because of environmental concerns.

Newton said he can't legally discuss the issue of health hazards from cell phone antennas. But he did say: "There are enough people in Ashland who believe they are risky and that will destroy our business, Hidden Springs Wellness Center. I have no doubt about that, so we are willing to fight this all the way. This is our baby and it's like this is threatening the life of our baby."

The commission took testimony May 11, then at the request of both sides reopened the record through June 16 for further written comment, which is at www.ashland.or.us/1644ashland.

AT&T, in a letter from its Portland consultant, said Holiday Inn Express at the south Ashland interchange is a possible site but that a rooftop location there is unsafe and service there wouldn't extend to Southern Oregon University.

John Warren, owner of the hotel, said Monday that AT&T scouted his site months ago and wanted its equipment on the ground in a little building by the entrance. He wasn't receptive to the proposal then, he said, but feels "maybe we could make it work now."

Among public comments online was one from Jeanne Powell, who wrote, "I am no longer able to stay in buildings where there are wireless networks or near cell towers. I cannot sleep. If one cell tower goes in, it means four others follow, which has happened everywhere I've lived. If there is radio transmission of that magnitude, I will have to move. Please don't let them drive me out of my home."

Another letter, from Evelyn Herman, says, "I implore (you) to refuse permission. ... They have another location that is feasible that does not affect so many businesses and peace of mind of families and children. Isn't the harm that corporate greed does flagrant enough with what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico?"

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.