Stop the Tower

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Item in the Forum section, The Washington Times, 11/5/00

Objections should be raised to the Tenleytown tower

Tim Cooper

The soaring controversy over the revocation of a construction permit issued by the District government to a Boston-based tower company for the erection of a 756 foot telecommunications tower in Tenleytown is, contrary to assertions made by Bob Morgan in his recent op-ed piece, "Politics Towers Above," more about the careless issuance of a faulty building permit by the DC government, the deplorable lack of genuine public input and democratic consent in the approval process, and potential safety and health considerations, than it ever was about the play of politics.

Whether or not the tower company had a legal permit, as claimed by Mr. Morgan, is for a judge in the case to decide. There can be no question, however, that the permit process was grossly flawed. Not only was the Federal Height Act of 1910 completely ignored during consideration of the permit by the Office of Planning, but also no special exemption hearing was ever held by the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). According to federal law, any structure which would stand 130 feet or higher must be "approved by the mayor." Moreover, DC regulations require any proposed tower or structure over 20 feet must be taken before the BZA for review and community input. That hearing never took place. Nor did the mayor ever approve the tower permit. Only after it became evident that probable violations of city and federal law had occurred in the permit process did the mayor responsibly act to pull the permit. Of course, had the tower company presented its plans for the tower to the community through the proper channels, it would never have seen the light of day, which would have saved everyone a considerable degree of trouble.

Now the tower contractors are crying foul. That is curious because they are supposed to be experts in city zoning regulations and applicable federal law. Indeed, American Tower Company has already constructed more than 45 towers in the District, and the former lead attorney for the company was once an advisory neighborhood commissioner. For the company to now claim it was unaware of these critical provisions or that they were somehow inapplicable is, well, surprising

A behemoth tower, rising 200 feet taller than the Washington Monument, and emitting at least double the current amount of electro-magnetic radiation right into the classrooms of nearly a dozen schools in the immediate vicinity where thousands of children and young adults from all over the city attend daily, is cause enough for alarm. Add to that the critical safety issue of possible sheeting ice in wintertime striking pedestrians on the heavily trafficked sidewalk below, within several short feet of the tower base, and capable of killing or maiming either pedestrian or motorists, and it becomes self evident why the mayor stepped in to revoke the permit. Any lesser action on his part would have constituted gross negligence.

While the tower company claims that their new tower is vital to provide the District with high-definition television and cellular communication, the Tenleytown area already is home to a disproportionate number of television, radio and cellular towers including every major television station in Washington--which, it should be noted, broadcast not only in Washington, but also into Virginia and Maryland; and its never been clear precisely which stations are expected to lease the digital antennas, since every major station in the area already has them. These stations have doubled their output of electro-magnetic radiation in the past several years, beaming out signals in both analog and digital as required under a new FCC mandate in anticipation of a complete transition to digital broadcasting by 2006.

The prospect of adding an additional 169 new antennae at this site without researching and more fully understanding their possible health ramifications is a risk this community is simply unwilling to take.

Rarely, if ever, have the residents of Tenleytown, A.U. Park, Cleveland Park, Friendship Heights, and Chevy Chase been so united in opposition to anything. And for good reason: We may all be living surrounded by an invisible peril. What are the health effects of living under a rain of non-ionizing electro-magnetic radiation day in and day out? We dont really know yet. To date, the only major studies that have been commissioned on the subject have been funded primarily by the tele-communications industry itself. Given the bitter lessons learned from our past reliance on the tobacco industry studies regarding the causal link between cancer and cigarette smoking, we believe we should look elsewhere for objective information on electro-smog.

When all is said and done, the battle of community vs. this particular tower may well serve a far more important purpose, with possible national implications. It may, in fact, prove to be a precautionary tale about the potential deleterious health effects of electro-magnetic radiation on the public at large and most especially the children-- caused by an unprecedented explosion of new digital and cellular technologies that have been bombarding our communities at levels unimaginable even five years ago. And this has been studied little if any by federal, state, and local authorities.

On the other hand, concern over high levels of electro-magnetic radiation in Tenleytown is not exactly new. As far back as the 1970s, a book titled "The Zapping of America" claimed levels of radiation in this area were among the highest in the nation. It is time we revisited the issue.

In June in Saltzburg, Austria, an international conference was held on cell tower siting and the link to public health. Concerned attendees included concerned scientists and public health officials from around the world, who agreed to a consensus statement calling for a more protective standard of exposure based on the precautionary principle, and recommending that development rights for the erection and operation of telecommunication towers be subject to a permission procedure that should include the following:

Advance information and active community involvement.
Inspection of alternative siting locations.
Protection of health and well-being.

As residents already living near a myriad of broadcast towers, we couldn't agree more.

Other replies:

Laura Akgulian, letter to the editor, 11/1/00

Damian Didian, letter to the editor, 11/3/00

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