Stop the Tower

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Item in The Northwest Current, 11/22/00

Judge delays action on motion to dismiss TV tower suit

Elizabeth Wiener

Like a monument to indecision, a controversial half-built TV tower still looms over Tenleytown, one metal pier capped defiantly with a huge American flag. Caught in a legal quagmire, it won't be going up--or coming down--any time soon.

A federal judge last week set a Jan. 19 hearing for motions to dismiss a lawsuit brought by American Tower Systems, which is fighting the city's decision to block construction of the 756-foot tower. An actual trial, determining the fate of the tower, won't come until mid-March at the earliest.

"We're not happy," said John Brennan, the company's attorney. "The District is playing a four-corner defense. They just keep throwing the ball back and forth until time runs out."

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman had promised an expedited trial on the tower company's contention that the city illegally revoked its construction permit this fall under pressure from unhappy neighborhood residents. The company, the largest builder of wireless communication towers in the nation, is seeking millions in monetary damages as well as permission to continue construction.

But the case is mired in procedural wrangling. City lawyers will soon file a motion arguing the controversy is a local matter that doesn't belong in federal court. Only after that issue is settled will Friedman allow discovery, a legal procedure allowing each side to obtain the other's evidence.

Discovery will take about two weeks, Brennan said, but Friedman rebuffed the company's request to begin the process immediately.

Local opponents of the tower say it is too tall and obtrusive for a site near homes and schools, with potential health and safety impacts that have not been adequately studied. Ann Loikow, an advisory neighborhood commissioner concerned about the proliferation of such towers around the city, said American Tower is pushing hard to prevent a negative decision here that could give ammunition to citizens fighting new towers elsewhere.

The three-sided tower has become the centerpiece of a loud public relations campaign.

Boston-based American Tower recently hired a local publicity agent to press its case among District residents, and against the District government.

Radio ads and a new Web site proclaim that the tower would provide "cutting-edge" telecommunications services to all D.C. residents, but was blocked by Mayor Anthony Williams as "a political easy way out" after "a small group of influential citizens" protested.

Bryan Wyatt, publicity agent for the company, said he has been getting some "very good positive feedback" from the ads and from meetings with "members of the ethnic business community" and other community leaders.

Last week American Tower vice president Robert J. Morgan asked to meet personally with Ward 3 D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, who has spearheaded opposition to the tower.

Patterson termed it a useful meeting. "It was a good opportunity, frankly, to point out this isn't 'just a small group of residents' [who oppose the tower]." She noted the council itself asked Mayor Williams to stop construction and to declare a moratorium on such towers until better regulations and safety standards are formulated.

Another group, Citizens Against Government Waste, has been running newspaper ads for several weeks arguing the permit revocation jeopardizes efforts to attract new technology while "exposing the city to a $250 million lawsuit."

Patterson's top aide, JoAnne Ginsberg, said the office still receives frequent calls from residents concerned about the tower and requesting updates. "But we haven't gotten one phone call" in response to the ads, she said.

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