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New cell tower approved near Waiehu Kou

Neighbors concerned about possible health effects

New Cingular Wireless PCS LLC has proposed a 40-foot cellular antenna in Waiehu. The Maui Planning Commission approved a permit for the project Tuesday.

The Maui Planning Commission on Tuesday approved a new 40-foot-tall cellular tower along Kahekili Highway that spurred objections from some residents living in the Waiehu Kou subdivisions across from the project site.

New Cingular Wireless PCS, LLC (AT&T Mobility), requested a special use permit for the tower, which would include a monopole designed to look like a palm tree along with support equipment on a 980-square-foot portion of an 8.1-acre agricultural lot at 1651 Kahekili Highway, unit one, according to county documents.

The company said the cellular antenna is needed to “fill a significant gap” in AT&T’s 4G LTE coverage in the Waihee and Waiehu area and along Kahekili Highway. It also will include AT&T’s 850-megahertz low-band 5G technology and help in improving communications for first responders through its efforts with the FirstNet Nationwide Safety Public Broadband Network.

But testifiers at the virtual meeting, some of which included residents of the nearby Department of Hawaiian Home Lands’ Waiehu Kou projects, were concerned over the safety of radio frequencies from the tower, the tower’s proximity to the subdivisions and the level of community outreach by AT&T.

The vote on the special use permit was 5-2, with Vice-Chairman Christian Tackett absent and excused. Those voting in favor were P. Denise La Costa, Stephen Castro, Melvin Hipolito, Kellie Pali and Dale Thompson. Those opposed were Jerry Edlao and Kawika Freitas, who asked that commissioners defer the vote so more outreach could be done for residents.

The cell tower would include a monopole designed to look like a palm tree along with support equipment on a 980-square-foot portion of an 8.1-acre agricultural lot at 1651 Kahekili Highway, unit one.

Freitas said that AT&T did not meet the criteria of the special use permit, including being able to assure that the project does not have an adverse impact to the social, cultural, economic, environmental and ecological character and quality of the surrounding area.

Freitas said some Native Hawaiians finally living on homestead lands are wary about the antenna and could feel concerned enough to move. He said this is enough to affect the character and quality of the areas and have social impacts to the residents.

Pali said that she has family who lives there and did receive a notice of the project. She said some are in favor and even excited about it, including one person who is homeschooling their daughter and welcomes the upgraded technology. However, she agreed that the company’s communication with the community could have been better.

Thompson said he understood the concerns with 5G but noted that even opponents of the antenna likely have a cellphone, and that state officials have long signed off on improving technology.

Commissioners were limited in their powers, as a county attorney explained that federal law prevents local governments from setting stricter requirements on radio frequency emissions than the federal government.

A photo shows how a future 40-foot cellular antenna disguised as a palm tree will look from Kahekili Highway in Waiehu. The Maui Planning Commission on Wednesday approved a special use permit for the cell tower, though some residents had concerns about possible health impacts.

Deputy Corporation Counsel Michael Hopper also said that the commission cannot deny a permit based on the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions if the facilities comply with the Federal Communications Commission.

Andrew Tomlinson, who represented the company, said the antenna meets FCC guidelines. According to the application, a study showed that the maximum cumulative simulated radio frequency exposure level at ground level would be less than 1 percent of the general public limit.

Tomlinson told commissioners that community engagement began around last fall and that some notification documents were even mailed to people beyond the required 500-foot radius. Project officials also called community associations, the mayor and the Maui County Council, and set up a dedicated email account and phone number to address concerns.

Because of the pandemic, in-person visits and community meetings were not possible, Tomlinson said.

He added that they took in community input early on, and that the project was changed so that the antenna is now disguised as a palm tree to help it blend in further with the landscape.

But Roy Oliveira, president of the Waiehu Kou Phase 3 Association, said he was contacted by someone from the project and told the caller that he was opposed to the project because of its proximity to homes.

“That was the one and only call I got,” he said, noting more community outreach should have been done.

Randy Awo, who represents Maui on the Hawaiian Homes Commission, testified as as private citizen and resident of Waiehu Kou Phase 1. He said the application for the county permit does not meet all the criteria needed for approval, including one condition that calls for that the public be protected from the “deleterious effects of the proposed use.” Awo quoted Scientific American magazine that showed more than 500 studies pointing to harmful biological or health effects from exposure to radio frequency radiation at intensities too low to cause significant heating. He said the same article noted that electromagnetic fields affect living organism at levels well below most international and national guidelines.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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