Stop the Tower

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Item in The Northwest Current, 11/8/00

Foes of telecommunications tower are optimistic

Elizabeth Wiener

Opponents of the half-finished telecommunications tower in Tenleytown say a federal judge's ruling temporarily prohibiting further construction makes them optimistic the tower will eventually come down.

Tim Cooper, a Tenleytown resident who organized opposition to the tower, said city lawyers now plan to ask U.S. Circuit Court Judge Paul Friedman to send the case back to a local court or city zoning agency, forums which might be more sympathetic to residents' concerns.

But American Tower Corporation officials last week vowed to fight on even after losing round one of what promises to be a protracted legal battle. In a statement, General Manager Robert Murphy said Friedman's ruling "in no way diminishes the strength and legal soundness of our case."

The company is seeking $250 million in damages from the city, but also wants to complete construction of the controversial 756 foot tower Murphy says will improve local access to high density television, cell phones and other wireless telecommunications service.

Judge Friedman gave some comfort to both sides after a two-hour hearing last Wednesday.

Friedman refused to grant a preliminary injunction allowing American Tower to continue building while its lawsuit is pending, saying the firm would not suffer "irreparable harm" in the interim. He noted pointedly that any harm "can be remedied later" with what could be a multimillion-dollar penalty assessed against the city.

But Friedman also said the tower firm has "a substantial likelihood" of succeeding when its full case is heard. The judge said he found "persuasive" arguments that the company "acted in good faith" in seeking a building permit for the tower, adding that city officials need "reasons that are more than makeshift" to revoke it. "The fact the permit was issued speaks for itself," he said.

American Tower's Murphy said the tower had been reviewed and approved by 13 different city officials before a permit was issued last March. He said city officials "played politics with the law" to placate Ward 3 residents when they revoked it several weeks ago.

City attorneys acknowledge that lower level staffers routinely approved plans for the tower despite what they now say are violations of local zoning law and the federal height act. Mayor Anthony Williams revoked the permit in early October after a crescendo of protests from residents near the site just off Wisconsin Avenue and Brandywine Street.

But Ward 3 City Council member Kathy Patterson said Monday she is optimistic the city will prevail. "I think the tower will come down, given that it violates District zoning law," Patterson said. "I can't imagine the judge would find differently."

Cooper and other anti-tower activists were jubilant after the ruling. Cooper said he expects the company to lose its suit not only on zoning grounds, but also because it did not exhaust administrative remedies, such as appealing to the city Board of Zoning Adjustment, before going to federal court.

"We got what we wanted," said Cooper. "The tower company shot their big cannon" in federal court and lost, he said. "Now, literally, they've got an uphill climb."

Friedman set a status hearing Nov. 16 to schedule a trial date, but a motion by the city challenging federal court jurisdiction could be heard first.

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