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Item in The Northwest Current, 4/18/01

Tower firm stirs queries with talk of accord

Chris Kain

Officials of the American Tower Co. last week expressed hopes of reaching a compromise with neighbors that would pave the way for the District to permit completion of the 756-foot telecommunications tower in Tenleytown that is now the subject of a court battle.

"There may be some common ground for agreement," attorney James Michal said at the end of an often contentious meeting where residents peppered company officials with questions.

The session marked the first time that American Tower Co. met with the advisory neighborhood commission. Construction began last summer on the tower, the culmination of a building permit review process that began in March 1999.

The absence of overtures earlier in the process led to overt suspicion of the latest attempt, which comes in the midst of the company's efforts to overturn the District's decision to revoke the building permit.

"The approach this late in the game raises the question why," said Damien Didden, a Tenleytown resident active in the Stop the Tower Coalition. "Is it PR or a genuine effort at negotiation?"

Michal said he would like to work with two to three neighborhood representatives to find some agreement, suggesting that the company could reduce the number of antennas on the tower or could work with the owner of an antenna in the midst of the nearby residential neighborhood to move it to the new tower.

The company officials also presented sketches of several alternative designs for a two-, three- or five-story fašade that would limit views of the tower from 41st Street.

Commission chair Jill Diskan, whose district includes the site, suggested that Michal send a written request. A resident said such a meeting might not be appropriate in the midst of the court fight.

Company officials and their attorneys--seven in all--said that they wanted to correct rampant misinformation about the project. Attorney John Brennan said that the tower complies with zoning regulations and that the company performed due diligence before undertaking the project. City officials at the time said they agreed that the project was permitted as a matter of right on the parcel, zoned for commercial use.

"It went through agency review," Brennan said. "Everything was proper. ... This is not [subject to] debate or vote. It's by matter of right."

In his presentation, Didden challenged that interpretation, adding that the court appeal alleges that a conspiracy deprived the company of a legally issued building permit. The heart of the conspiracy, Didden said dismissively, is that Mayor Anthony Williams met with his constituents and then took corrective measures to reverse an incorrect decision.

He argued that American Tower's business model--developing towers with the hope of signing contracts with broadcasters and cellular phone companies, preventing the need for television stations and others to build their own towers--is inherently speculative in nature. As such, he said, the company must expect some defeats.

In such a business, he said, "you win some and you lose some. That's how it should be, and that's what's happening in this case."

Of the proposed fašade treatments, Didden said that the offer is inadequate. "I think it's a low-ball offer," he said. "It barely scratches the surface. ... It is a step in the right direction in terms of improving the streetscape. I compare it to putting shoes on a giraffe. That's how it dresses up the neighborhood."

Looking back, company officials said they would likely have consulted with the neighborhood earlier. Michal said he had recommended that the company obtain the permit first for fear that residents might seek to block construction by changing the regulations--something he as seen happen elsewhere.

"There have been instances where the applicant does not get a fair shake before they make their case," he said. "We had to make a judgment. ... Knowing what we know now, we would probably have approached it in a different manner."

One by one, residents at the meeting--about 35 stayed until 11 p.m. to hear the discussion--offered their own comments. Most reiterated longstanding concerns about the visual impact, the potential for falling ice, and the possible but unproven health dangers from radiation. Company officials sought to reassure skeptical residents, saying for instance that more updated technology would resolve complaints of interference on small electronic equipment despite the presence of more antennas.

Resident Carol Tannenwald responded to the company's claims that zoning regulations require no setback in the commercial zone, a claim that was in dispute. Regardless of the law, Tannenwald said, property owners should not all push the envelope and infringe on the interests of the broader community.

"It doesn't mean you should come out to the edge of the street," she said.

As the 90 minutes of discussion drew to a close, commissioner Chris McNamara noted that the law did not require American Tower to come before the commission at all. He also expressed disgust with the tone of the discussion, which he said was characteristic of too many meetings between developers and affected residents.

"It's usually not good dialogue. It's usually not constructive," he said.

McNamara dismissed the company's efforts to describe the new tower as more visually pleasing than the three towers of various sizes previously on the site. But he also agreed with the company's suggestion that someone in the neighborhood might well have sought to change the regulations if the company had made overtures early on.

But he said he sees the seeds of a compromise. "I think something can be worked out," McNamara said.

Commissioner Frank Gordon was less sure. He asked whether the company could reduce the height of the tower. Company official Bob Morgan described the height of the antennas, and therefore the height of the tower, as crucial.

"It may be a dream to think the neighborhood or you would consider a compromise," Gordon told company officials.

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