Residents of Kurtistown neighborhood vow to fight cell phone tower project

  • MIKE BRESTOVANSKY/Tribune-Herald From left, Anna Maneja, Edelyn Ellwood, Carlita Maneja, Ramona Araujo and Prescott Ellwood oppose the construction of a nearly 200-foot-tall cellphone tower on an agricultural lot in Kurtistown.

Members of a small Kurtistown community are fighting for their health and homes against the planned construction of a nearly 200-foot-tall cellphone tower.

Telecommunications company AT&T applied in February with the county’s Windward Planning Commission for a permit to build a 180-foot-tall monopole cell tower on an agricultural lot in Kurtistown, located squarely between a small community of approximately 20 homes and the Kamehameha Schools Hawaii campus.

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However, residents of that community are furious at the project and fear significant ramifications for their daily lives if the project goes forward.

“This is gonna be huge,” said resident Prescott Ellwood. “It’s going to be the biggest thing on the island. You’ll be able to see it from everywhere.”

The community, a square collection of lots adjacent to the tower site, is inhabited by working-class farmers or retirees, some of whom have lived there for generations. The homes are modest and are served by a private road that encircles the community.

Hundreds of residents around the area have signed a petition to stop the project, Ellwood said, while dozens of signs opposing the tower are scattered around the neighborhood.

Ellwood said that, for most of the homeowners in the community, their homes OVERSET FOLLOWS:are all they have. The construction of a colossal cell tower immediately next to their homes will devastate their homes’ property values because of widespread fears of radiation-induced health risks, he said.

“People automatically think ‘cancer’ when they hear about a cell tower,” said resident Anna Maneja.

Indeed, Maneja and many others in the community are most worried that the construction of a cell tower will expose them to harmful radiation. Although most expert bodies — including the World Health Organization, the U.S. National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society — have argued that there is no conclusive evidence that the radiation caused by cellphones increases the risk of developing cancer, they also have recommended that further studies be done to confirm whether such a link exists.

“This is an agricultural lot,” Maneja said. “People raise animals here, we have a farm here. For them to put some huge tower up there, we can’t just move away.”

And if the residents of the nearby community are endangered by the tower, the students at the nearby Kamehameha Schools certainly must be as well, Ellwood said.

An official statement by Alapaki Nahale-a, Kamehameha Schools’ senior director of community engagement and resources for Hawaii Island, took no position on the tower, but requested that the county or developer hold informational sessions to hear any concerns by the parents.

“We are steadfast in our commitment to ensure student safety and well-being and we ask you for your assistance in assuring that the developer engages with members of our school community so they are better informed about this project,” wrote Nahale-a to the Windward Planning Commission.

Even if the tower is totally benign and carries no health risks, it could still negatively impact residents in other ways. One resident, Ramona Araujo, said she is sensitive to the microwaves emitted by such towers and can hear them as a high-pitched hum; a much smaller tower at the Foodland in Keaau can be heard from across the parking lot, she said.

“During the day, when things are happening, I might be able to ignore it,” Araujo said. “But during the nighttime, when everything’s quiet, how am I supposed to ignore that?”

Although AT&T did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, a representative at a February meeting of the Windward Planning Commission said the location of the tower was chosen to fill a gap in coverage around the area and provide a reliable network for emergency services.

But the telecommunications company made several errors in notifying the community, Ellwood said. First, AT&T only submitted notifications about the project to landowners, not renters, which he said potentially left about half the community in the dark about the project and violates state laws.

Second, a posted notice about the project was not placed on a public road as required by law, but was instead placed on a corner of the private road encircling the community, where it would be seen by few residents. That sign has since been moved to a public road, after its improper placement was discussed at the planning commission’s February meeting.

Ellwood also questioned how the company intends to build the tower in the first place. The lot where the tower is to be built is owned by a Richard Umiat, who, according to Hawaii County real property tax records, also owns the private road around the community, which will be used as the primary access route for construction vehicles.

However, that road is a poorly maintained single-lane dirt road, which would likely not bear the weight of frequent construction traffic. In any case, Ellwood also contested Umiat’s claims of ownership of the road.

Ellwood and dozens of community members will attend today’s meeting of the Windward Planning Commission in Hilo, wherein the commission will decide whether to grant AT&T its use permit.

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“Let me be clear: That tower will not be built here,” Ellwood said. “We will not allow it to be built.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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