Several nearby residents and shop owners are hoping that a new Verizon cell phone tower disguised as a water tower on Bodega Avenue just west of town will mean the end of poor cellular reception.

The cell tower, currently being built on the vacant portion of 3500 Bodega Avenue at the Thomas Lane intersection, will be Petaluma's ninth cellular tower. It should strengthen Verizon's cell phone reception in the southwest outskirts of town — an area known for its dropped calls.

"AT&T works OK out here," said Petaluma resident and Bodega Avenue salon owner Tammy Merrill. "But Verizon calls are constantly dropped, so stopping that will be great."

Dave Tarca owns the property where the cell tower is being built. He said it will not only enhance cellular service in the area, but that it is also protecting the county's scenic corridor by generating revenue on the property without further development.

"That lot is zoned for commercial, but I don't want to see a bunch of development go in there," said Tarca. "I've had offers from San Francisco developers — outsiders who wanted to put strip malls in there. But I have no interest in that. I feel it would just ruin the aesthetics of the area. But a cell tower helps reception for the area's increasing traffic and the water tower design makes it fit in with the look of the area. It's a way to keep that site the way it is."

And while most people seem OK with the 60-foot tower boosting their cell service, not everyone was thrilled at its arrival.

"I just bought my home two years ago," said next-door neighbor Steve Allen, whose property lies just west of the tower. "I have Verizon and I know my service will be better — I admit that it's awful now — but I'm not thrilled about living right next to this thing. I feel it will decrease the value of my property."

Allen's quaint red home sits on a perfectly landscaped yard — something he just had completed for his daughter's upcoming wedding. It sports a brand new fence that Tarca installed to help separate his property from Allen's. But even so, the coming 60-foot tower will loom over the 6-foot fence.

"I didn't buy land out here to have a tower go up, but none of the other neighbors wanted to get involved and I can't fight Verizon all by myself," said Allen. "I guess it'll just have to grow on me."

Petaluma's rural areas have seen an influx of cellular towers in the past decade. It began in 2005 when AT&T erected the city's first tower on Redwood Highway. Since then, both Verizon and AT&T have strategically placed towers around the city's perimeter in an effort to broaden their service areas.

The increase in towers has also raised efforts to camouflage the tall metal structures as trees, flagpoles, chimneys, grain silos, church steeples and business signs. This latest tower — much to the relief of residents — is being built to look like a water tower.

"The other ones nearby are ugly," said Walt Hussey, who owns the automotive shop that occupies the front side of the lot where the new tower is being built. "The ones that are supposed to look like trees don't look anything like trees and the others that aren't disguised just look awful. Thank goodness ours will be better-looking."

Though some people, including Allen, worry about what they say are potential health hazards of living next to a cell phone tower — like radiation exposure — Verizon said there are no proven risks. But whether or not the concern over radiation is warranted, Allen says the widespread perception of health risks will make his property difficult to re-sell in the future.

"People with families don't want to raise their kids right next to one of those things, even if there is no proven science that it's bad for you," said Allen. "I just wish I had known about the possibility when I bought this place."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzsein@arguscourier.com)