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Item in The Washington Post, 9/28/00

Review of Tower Wasn't Accurate, D.C. Officials Say

Debbi Wilgoren

The mammoth telecommunications tower being built in Tenleytown was approved by District employees who had inaccurate information about the project and failed to assess its environmental impact, according to city officials.

Those errors will be the focus of a meeting today between city lawyers and top aides to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams--who is looking for a way to halt the project without getting sued by the company trying to build it.

Tenleytown residents plan to demonstrate at the tower site this morning and to keep calling, e-mailing and petitioning Williams's office to express opposition to the $5.6 million, 756-foot tower, which would be 11/3 times as tall as the Washington Monument and the largest of several antennas clustered just east of Wisconsin Avenue NW near the Friendship Heights Metro station.

"I can see it out of my window already," said protest organizer Jo Cooper, who lives less than two blocks from the site at 4623 41st St. NW where the tower is being built. "It's soon going to be taking away my sky."

Zoning officials gave the proposal only a cursory review last year after receiving a memo in support of the project from the city planning office, Zoning Admininstrator Michael D. Johnson said.

But that memo--written by a staff member who retired in January -- is replete with errors. It says that the American Tower Systems structure would replace three existing towers and be used by WJLA-TV (Channel 7) and WUSA-TV (Channel 9). But both stations deny any involvement in the project, which is intended for high-definition television, cellular phone and FM radio transmissions.

The memo also says the project complies with a city regulation for roof-based antennas--but the tower is ground-based. And it says the Federal Communications Commission has approved the project, although city officials say they have no record of such a decision.

"There are a lot of flaws," said Ellen McCarthy, the city's deputy planning director. She said the retired staff member who wrote the memo could not recall the source of the misinformation when her office contacted him last week.

Also unclear is why the city did not complete sections of the application that address whether an environmental impact study is needed. Inspectors for such departmental divisions as water and sewer and fire prevention signed off on the project, but the spaces on the application for the Health Administration were left blank.

Theodore Gordon, chief operating officer for the Health Department, said the environmental forms were never forwarded to the right people. "We have absolutely no record of receiving any request," he said. "You can't review something you don't have."

Robert Cooper, an attorney for American Tower Systems, was out of his office yesterday. But on Tuesday he said the firm has a valid permit. "Every agency that was responsible for looking at this approved it," he said. "If there was any question, that question was answered. If there was an issue, it was resolved."

But opponents of the tower--and some city officials, who say the structure is unattractively close to two restaurants and a well-traveled sidewalk--say the errors and omissions in the application should give Williams (D) an excuse to stop it.

"This is not a complete review. This is not a complete checkoff," said Jo-Ann Ginsburg, chief of staff for D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (Ward 3), who represents Tenleytown and opposes the tower. "Why is the project going forward?"

Opponents also are examining whether city law would have required a specific exemption from existing height restrictions by Williams, something he apparently did not grant.

"We are not bound by something unlawfully issued," said Patterson, who spearheaded emergency legislation last week asking Williams to stop the project.

But Carlynn Fuller, acting director of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, told residents at a community meeting Tuesday night that city lawyers are still trying "to map out a legal strategy ... to see if [the mayor] can take back the authority."

At the same time, the city's planning office is rewriting its regulations and creating a new review process for antenna towers, a project that began before this controversy but has since been accelerated.

"We installed a whole new screening process," said McCarthy, the deputy planning director. "I'm fairly confident that this would not happen now."

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