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Item in The Northwest Current, 6/12/02

Zoning panel mulls new antenna limits

Chris Kain

The D.C. Zoning Commission agreed this week to consider new regulations that would restrict antenna towers and monopoles to the city's industrial zones without special permission.

The commission will hold a public hearing later this year on the proposed rules.

The regulations, crafted by the Office of Planning with the help of a task force, would empower the Board of Zoning Adjustment to permit towers and monopoles in most commercial and mixed-use areas.

Setbacks would grow under the draft rules, with one foot required for every three feet in height. Current rules require one foot of setback for every six feet in height.

Under the draft regulations, towers and monopoles would be barred altogether in residential zones--as well as in commercial areas zones for neighborhood shopping districts, where maximum building heights are 40 feet.

The proposed regulations set out a separate system governing antennas, granting them as a matter of right as long as applicants provide appropriate screening and comply with certain other conditions. The draft regulations envision various conditions for antennas placed on a roof, mounted on a building or mounted on the ground.

Applicants who can't comply could take their case to the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

The proposed regulatory overhaul stems from the outcry after the District granted a permit for a 756-foot antenna tower in Tenleytown without any public hearing.

The tower remains partially constructed, with its fate tied to pending court appeals. Last year, American Tower Corp. filed notice that it would appeal a U.S. District Court ruling, which threw out of federal court American Tower's $250 million suit against the city.

Residents who fought to block its construction claimed that the city had acted counter to its own regulations, but they and city planners agreed that some rules were overly vague. The city council in 2000 adopted a moratorium on towers taller than 200 feet and asked for creation of a comprehensive policy.

The Zoning Commission initially scheduled public hearings last winter on revised antenna regulations, but officials quickly realized the complicated issue needed more review. The commission instead held a roundtable discussion, and then city planners convened a task force to flesh out the details.

The task force included residents concerned about the spread of antennas, as well as attorneys representing telecommunications firms. Industry representatives opposed the proposed ban on towers and monopoles in low-scale districts, as well as the requirement for Board of Zoning Adjustment everywhere else except industrial zones--both of which made their way into the Office of Planning's proposal.

In a discussion Monday before voting 5-0 to hold a hearing in the case, Zoning Commission members described some of their concerns.

Longtime member John Parsons said he worried that the screening requirement provided too much leeway. As a result, he suggested, the rules might not do enough to protect the capital city's scenic vistas.

"I'm concerned about some antennas that stick up around Meridian Hill Park. I don't know how they got there," Parsons said. "I don't think this is strong enough."

Planner Jennifer Steingasser said the rules envision a site-specific approach, noting that an impasse on antennas proposed for the roof of an East Capitol Street office building has been resolved when engineers found a way to make the screening look like a chimney.

"It's very much a moving target," she said.

Commission chair Carol Mitten said she would like to see attention to the cumulative effect of radiation from antennas in a given area, rather than just the amount caused by the particular antenna under consideration.

"I don't know if there's a way to work that into the regulations," she said.

Mitten also cited concern about the permissible size of cabinets or shelters to house antennas, whether on the roof or in a yard.

"I think it could have a very unpleasant side effect on design," she said.

At Monday's meeting, the Zoning Commission also acted to close a loophole caused by the city's failure to implement the commission's last rewrite of the antenna regulations in 1989. Although the commission's order stated that towers are not a matter-of-right use in the low-scale commercial zone, the D.C. Municipal Regulations as printed kept outdated language and thus indicated otherwise.

Attorneys for the Stop the Tower Coalition that fought the Tenleytown tower had pointed out the error. The commission's attorney, Alan Bergstein, said he agrees there had been a "likely miscodification," and recommended that the commission take corrective action.

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