Stop the Tower

Back Up Next

Item in The Northwest Current, 3/7/01

Residents urge new antenna restrictions

Chris Kain

Dozens of District residents, many of them prompted to action when construction began on the 756-foot telecommunications tower in Tenleytown that is now the subject of a court fight, urged the Zoning Commission this week to develop more stringent restrictions on towers and antennas.

By all accounts, the number of antennas will only grow in the next few years. More cellular telephone users, as well as a rising number of wireless modems, require more antennas to maintain the level of service.

"As the number of consumers increases, more cell sites will be needed to handle the demand," said Sean Patrick Hughes of Nextel Communications.

Industry representatives offered varied reactions to the proposals pushed by residents. A proposal to require a special exemption for all towers, regardless of height, caused little concern. A suggestion that companies apply for a zoning variance for every antenna prompted criticism as impractical for the industry and the Board of Zoning Adjustment, with an industry attorney noting that a single company might have dozens of antennas in the District.

The commission held a roundtable Monday night to hear suggestions for new regulations. Concerns about inadequate notice blocked an earlier hearing on a draft of proposed rules prepared last fall by the Office of Planning, and so the Zoning Commission and city planners decided to ask for suggestions from the public and industry representatives before drafting a new proposal.

Residents in Tenleytown and elsewhere struggled to comply with one of the ground rules: no discussion of specific antennas or towers, due to the pending litigation over the District's stop-work order blocking completion of the Tenleytown tower and due to possible hearings on antennas like the one proposed at the Penn Branch Shopping Center in Ward 7.

"We are of the opinion that the tower should not go into our community," said Jim Lewis of the Dupont Park Civic Association, who said his neighbors share the same concerns about the impact of low levels of electromagnetic radiation as Tenleytown residents. "It seems to be a mystery. There doesn't seem to be enough enforcement [of federal standards]. ... If it's a factor of fear there, it's a factor of fear where we are."

Residents asked for broader notice requirements, and the Stop the Tower Coalition proposed a ban on locations near schools, hospitals, nursing homes and places of worship. Several witnesses suggested a time limit--five years perhaps--on approvals so that officials could determine whether the structure was still appropriate and needed. Others suggested a ban on any new towers, or at least a ban affecting residentially zoned land or commercially zoned property near residential areas.

"We are uncomfortable with towers being located in low-rise commercial areas with minimal setbacks," said Tom Bethell, a member of the governing board at St. Columba's Episcopal Church on Albemarle Street near Wisconsin Avenue.

"Communities are not being contacted and information is not brought to them in a timely fashion," said Cecily Patterson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 4. "Residents are skeptical, and with good reason. We are not being notified. We are not being assured that we are protected."

Most residents cited worries about health impacts from the presence of so many antennas. While acknowledging that scientific research has not proven the relationship, Stephanie Kinney said that District officials should err on the side of caution in protecting city residents. Tenleytown resident Laura Akgulian noted that epidemiological studies take a long time to prepare, and Ward 4 resident Kathy Berger added that research linking smoking to cancer or documenting the dangers of leaded gasoline were once controversial and labeled inconclusive.

"We don't appreciate the idea of being guinea pigs any more than guinea pigs do," Akgulian said, "nor do we want to see our neighborhood become an industrial park."

The Stop the Tower Coalition asked for the D.C. Department of Health to review cumulative exposure when an applicant seeks permission for a new antenna or tower. Residents of Tenleytown, in particular, have expressed concern about the number of towers already clustered along Wisconsin Avenue.

"There needs to be tight controls over construction of any new towers," said Tenleytown resident Robert Bruchard. "No community should be burdened with as many towers as we have been in Tenleytown."

Although the federal Telecommunications Act bars local authorities from regulating cell phone antennas based on health and safety concerns, residents noted that the rule does not apply to broadcast towers. It also does not prohibit local authorities from requiring detailed reports from applicants so they can review whether a proposal complies with federal health and safety standards, noted Peter Tannenwald, a Northwest resident and a telecommunications lawyer.

"You can ask those questions," Tannenwald told the commissioners, adding that he finds himself conflicted on the issue. "I'm on both sides of it. I live in the neighborhood, and I hate all the towers. But I represent broadcasters."

Tannenwald said he believed may witnesses had overstated the health concerns, a comment that prompted several questions from commissioners. The members also suggested that the Office of Planning get further suggestions from him as planners draft new regulations.

"There haven't been enough studies, and there probably never will be, to prove anything," Tannenwald said. "People don't know, and they're afraid. But we can't make law based on fear. You have to do the best you can with the information available."

For their part, industry representatives said the Zoning Commission and the Office of Planning need to distinguish between antenna towers and antennas.

"Antennas on existing structures should be separated from the issue of towers," said Alan Swendiman, an attorney with Jackson & Campbell who represented Cingular Wireless at the hearing. They should be permitted as a matter of right, he said, as long as they fit within the building's existing zoning.

Robert Cooper, an attorney with Jackson & Campbell who represented Winstar at the hearing, expressed concern that the District might require special exceptions for the equipment shelters needed to operate the antennas. Cooper also represents American Tower Co., the builder of the new Tenleytown tower.

"That is one area that needs to be addressed and clarified," he said.

Tim Cooper, president of the Stop the Tower Coalition, argued that the law already requires a Board of Zoning Adjustment hearing for proposed towers such as the one partially constructed by American Tower.

Cooper provided a written opinion by zoning attorney Richard Nettler that the Zoning Commission's 1989 order has the power of law, even though someone mistakenly left in an outdated provision in the zoning regulations.

"That order was never competently implemented in the regulations," said Cleveland Park activist Peter Espenschied.

The issue at stake: whether all antenna towers over 20 feet already must apply for a special exemption.

"Eighty percent of what is needed to regulate antennas and towers is existing [in that order]," said Jill Diskan, chair of the advisory neighborhood commission representing Friendship Heights and Tenleytown. "It should be the starting point."

In his testimony, attorney Robert Cooper didn't address broadcast tower issues because of the pending litigation. But after the hearing, he dismissed the idea that the language of the order should take precedence over the language of the regulations.

"Regulations are what they are," he said. "We can second-guess now. The regulations were drafted, reviewed and published."

The Zoning Commission will hear more testimony on the issue on March 19.

See also:

bulletTestimony of the Stop the Tower Coalition

Back Up Next

endspan -->