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Item in The Northwest Current, 3/21/01

City review of antennas advances

Chris Kain

After hearing from another round of District residents urging tighter restrictions on antennas and telecommunications towers, the Zoning Commission announced this week that it will create a task force to collect information on too many unanswered questions.

"What we now know is how much we don't know," commission chair Carol Mitten said at the end of Monday night's two-hour session. An earlier roundtable discussion on March 5 lasted about four hours.

"We don't want to prematurely come out with regulations before we fully understand what we're dealing with," she added. Mitten said that she hopes to have members selected within the next several weeks. The task force will then have about two months to gather information on possible health effects, the impact of the federal Telecommunications Act on the commission's ability to act, and policies in other jurisdictions.

"Then we will be in a better position to talk about what makes sense in terms of draft regulations," she said after the meeting. "Then we'll start another public hearing process."

Mitten said that it is unlikely the Zoning Commission could adopt new regulations before November or December.

"It's definitely a priority," she said. "It's just a matter of trying to be purposeful about being informed before we go to the step of actually drafting regulations."

Mitten's announcement came at the end of a hearing dominated by impassioned pleas from a variety of District residents, some of them seasoned activists and others first-time witnesses before the Zoning Commission. No one from the industry testified, although several of their attorneys watched the proceedings.

The residents cited concerns about possible health consequences from long-term exposure, saying that even in the absence of concrete evidence, the District should adopt a policy of prudent avoidance.

They also cited other safety concerns, such as the danger of falling ice or tools, noting that workers at some television stations with their own towers are warned not to park too close during the winter. Klingle Valley Park Association president Isabel Furlong said that the remote control for her new security system doesn't work--which didn't surprise the worker who installed it, she said, after he looked out her window to the Washington National Cathedral and the antennas atop its spires.

American University Part resident Carolyn Sherman said that officials need to weigh the unknown health risks and the loss of scenic vistas against the only benefit she sees--bigger profits for the industry. "I don't think it's a tough decision," she said.

John Gratz, a seven-year resident of Tenleytown, urged similar caution given the potential risks and the location of several towers in one neighborhood.

"This is still an unknown area, but it's not one that should be ignored," he said. "The District, or Tenleytown for one, shouldn't have to bear the burden of the whole community."

Ward 5 resident Philip Blair, whose daughter attends Deal Junior High School in the shadow of the many towers along Wisconsin Avenue, urged the commission to adopt the federal emissions standards so that local officials can enforce them. Blair and others asked for a requirement that each applicant demonstrate that the cumulative radiation for its antenna added to the existing ones would not violate the permitted levels.

A few minutes later, Zoning Commission member Anthony Hood said he agreed that the city should find a way to measure the overall impact. "I keep hearing the safety issue," Hood said. "We have a lot of them in certain areas. We need to know exactly what people are being exposed to."

Kalorama Citizens Association representative Ann Hughes Hargrove said that the Zoning Commission needs to ensure better coordination among various government agencies and the development of a telecommunications plan like those in place or under development in cities such as San Francisco and nearby Berkeley. The health department needs to review applications, she said, and the city needs to develop a full inventory of existing antennas.

"We've got to know what we've got," she said. "We don't have a good map that shows where all these structures are."

Like many others who spoke, Blair described the many antennas as a blight on the landscape of the nation's capital, protected for nearly a century by congressional height limitations.

"They're overrunning the city," Blair said, "like some metallic kudzu. you can't say this is progress."

But Robert Cooper, an attorney who represents the cellular phone industry, said that the issues are more complicated. He said the District now has an effective process in place to review antennas, which includes scrutiny from city planners and which takes about six to eight weeks. Anything more would be unreasonable, he said.

"The current regulations are working," Cooper said after sitting through Monday's discussion. "The city is dealing with competing interests. You've got citizens who want services, and you've got citizens who don't want it in their back yard."

Cooper--who also represents American Tower Co., which is battling in court to regain approval for its partially erected 756-foot tower in Tenleytown--said that residents who are fighting for strict limits on new antennas but use cellular phones cannot have it both ways. He said the structures are needed to keep up with demand for cell phones, as well as wireless modems.

"You can't have a wireless community without antennas. It's impossible," he said. "You can't have television or radio without antennas. It's impossible."

Patricia Elwood, vice chair of the National Capital Planning Commission and chair of its antenna task force, said that federal and city officials need to work together to strike the right balance. She said the planning commission is reviewing its guidelines for antennas installed on federal property, which already limit approval to a 5- to 10-year period and restrict their size, location and appearance.

"With careful planning," Elwood said, "the broad streets and public spaces, grand vistas and clean building lines characteristic of our city can, and must, survive intact in this age of wireless telecommunications."

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