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This Snyder church thought its prayers had been answered.

A company proposes refurbishing its empty and aging steeple to house a cellular-phone tower -- invisible to all from the outside.

And the Amherst Community Church, located on tree-lined, residential Washington Highway, would have a new steeple, plus money to maintain its building and programs.

But to the surprise of church officials, neighbors showed up to picket before services Sunday.

The neighbors fear that the cellular tower's emissions will harm their health and that of the 250 children in the church's day care and nursery school.

The church's 400-member congregation still must vote on the matter, and residents are campaigning hard. On lawns across from the church, hand-lettered signs read, "ACC: Don't Cell Your Steeple" and "Love Thy Neighbor."

"It's great from an aesthetic point of view," said Kathy Ball, a Washington Highway resident. "But unless someone can tell the residents and the parents in the day care center that there is no health risk involved, I've asked the church to err on the side of caution."

Residents learned of plans for the tower because Verizon Wireless needed the town's permission to install the structure, and Amherst has a policy of mailing notices to nearby residents.

Amherst also has a law governing where companies can place cellular towers. Since 1996, the town has forbidden towers within 500 feet of a home, school or historical site.

However, the town's Zoning Board of Appeals set aside those requirements last week and approved the tower because it would be under the existing steeple.

"They're trying to discourage as many separate, free-standing towers as they can," said Assistant Building Commissioner F. Robert Danni. "In this case, it's probably the best of all worlds, because you avoid the tower and you can't even see the antennas."

Verizon Wireless says residents are needlessly worrying about the health effects of living near a cellular tower. The wireless industry points to a fact sheet put out by the Federal Communications Commission saying that cellular towers emissions are typically thousands of times below the levels considered to be safe.

"They radiate very little power directly downward," said Verizon Wireless spokesman John O'Malley, who works in a building topped with a cell tower. "The cellular antenna emits about 100 watts or less per channel. In comparison, a television tower might emit 5 million watts, a radio station 100,000 watts."

Use of wireless communications has grown exponentially in the past few years.

In 1995, a survey by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association showed 28 million people using cell phones and other wireless communication. Today, the number stands at nearly 86 million.

And with more cell phones come more cell towers -- often to the dismay of residents. Verizon needs this particular tower in Snyder to close a gap in its wireless network.

"The cell tower is going to go somewhere in the neighborhood," said the Rev. Ronald Beebe, church pastor. "If it doesn't go in our steeple, it's going to go somewhere you can see it."

To alleviate residents' concerns, the church has scheduled a meeting tentatively for 7 p.m. Oct. 11 in the church. A few weeks after that discussion, congregation members will vote on whether they want the tower.

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