Stop the Tower

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Response to items in The Washington Times, 12/00--unpublished

A matter of wrong

It appears as though the Washington Times editorial board has made an ill-informed rush to judgment when it berates Tenleytown residents for their resolute opposition to a colossal telecommunications tower plunked down without warning right in the center of their neighborhood. In its editorial of 11/30, the Times wags an admonishing finger at those "powers that want to be" for opposing the commercial powers that be by blocking construction of a potential dangerous, and manifestly grotesque, 756 ft. tower that would "be used for digital telecasts by WJLA and WUSA television stations."

The only problem with the Times' statement is that it is flat-out wrong. According to WJLA and WUSA, who are already broadcasting digital signals from one of the gigantic telecommunications towers set back away from the new tower site, neither television station has ever had any intention of ripping down their existing tower and making the leap over to American Tower's site. The second large tower, set alongside WJLA's tower, supports an antenna for CBS radio as well as pager antennas. The tower's owner, Doug Jemal, said he has no intention of tearing his tower down and has never been contacted by American Tower Corporation.

So where did the Times get this patently false notion? Incredibly, it came straight out of an Office of Planning (OP) memo--the same misleading memo that the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) relied upon when it gave the green light to this ill-fated project. Adding confusion to error, the language of the memo also seems to imply that the proposed 756 ft. tower will be replacing three other towers, including the large ones operated by WJLA and WUSA. In actuality, the only other towers to be removed are three 70 ft. towers--miniscule in comparison to the proposed monolith.

But a particularly troubling question remains that begs a coherent answer: Who told the Office of Planning that WUSA and WJLA would be transmitting digital television from the tower?--information which may have had a material impact on OP's general eagerness to recommend the tower project to DCRA. Curiously, the retired OP employee who wrote the memo has been quoted in a press report as saying that he cannot even remember how he acquired this choice morsel of misinformation. Perhaps the Times, itself now a victim of the memo's misleading claim, should investigate.

And if, as the tower company claims, it is essential that this tower be built in order to bring high-definition television to the nation's capital, who are its high-definition clients? Not WJLA nor WUSA, nor even WETA, which currently broadcasts its digital signal from Virginia. And certainly not WTTG nor WRC, which own and operate their own digital broadcast towers within a stone's throw of Tenleytown. In other words, all of the major broadcasting stations in the area already possess high-definition capability, and have for quite some time. So what's happened to American Tower's much touted rationale for building yet another tower -- this time inches from a pedestrian sidewalk and a major secondary artery --and rising a sixth of a mile into the city's skyline? It's a mystery, really.

Yet the company--in furtherance of its elusive rationale--has launched an expensive, scorched-earth public relations offensive against all those so-called "wealthy" residents of Tenleytown who dare to defy its will. A big Boston-based company that reported nearly $500 million in profits this year, it has spared no dime and left no divisive tactic unturned to achieve its ends, claiming, like the Wise Men, that it comes to town bearing gifts.

In actuality, however, the tower is little more than a hideous redundancy--unwanted by the community in which it has been indefensibly parked, and unneeded by the whole of the city to which it was brought unsolicited, and adored by only the executives and board members of the American Tower company, and its various high-priced PR consultants who make their living trying to undermine the will of local communities in the name of profit, regardless of the cost to the quality of life in those communities.

Let this be said about Mayor Williams: He stood up for the rights of the community over unresponsive government, reversing a trend in DC leadership that oversaw the flight of 200,000 Washingtonians from the city to the suburbs during the past three decades.

And while the Times makes light of what by any standards are legitimate concerns expressed by Northwest residents about the impact of the tower on the community, dismissing them with an air of breezy confidence without actually addressing them, it has been left to the tower company's local hired hand--attorney Robert Cooper--to deride the reasonable objections of reasonable people in his quest to defend the indefensible.

Among other things, Mr. Cooper claims that under the city's zoning regulations the company is entitled to build the tower as a "matter of right," a nice term that allows builders to sidestep the zoning review process and to avoid any public hearings. (One can only imagine the hue and cry a hearing on the tower in question would have spawned!) But had the company consulted the Zoning Commission's rulemaking on antennas in areas zoned C-2-B--the basic law governing antennas in the District --it would have soon discovered that broadcast antenna towers are only permitted in the District by "special exemption," necessitating, of course, both application to the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) and a public hearing.

American Tower should have known the basic law of the District governing antenna towers, especially in light of their expertise in this area. The largest tower builder in US, Canada, and Mexico, it claims to have built over 5,100 towers in 44 states and the District of Columbia to date. And while Mr. Cooper soft-pedals any reference to the more than 45 towers American Tower has already built in the District--claiming that they are antennas, not towers, American Tower's own website refers to them as towers--not antennas. Perhaps this explains why the company failed to review the basic law of the Zoning Commission on broadcast antennas in the District in the first place.

Additionally, it is clear that the tower violates the Federal Height Act of 1910 because a waiver for its construction was never "approved by the Mayor." Any argument by American Tower that the permit issued by DCRA acted as the requisite Height Act approval must fail for two reasons: (1) It cannot be that the mayor intends to specifically approve a Height Act exception every time DCRA issues a permit: this would obviate the approval provision itself; and (2) Precedent of an existing approval procedure: quick investigation into the approval of the dispatch tower near Georgia and Missouri Avenue reveals that the Office of Planning sent a special memo to the mayor requesting waiver of the Height Act restriction, and that specific approval by the mayor followed. In this case, the approval was never granted.

Most disturbingly, Mr. Cooper summarily dismisses residents' concerns about the clear and present danger of falling ice from broadcast towers in winter. Had Mr. Cooper bothered to check with NBC, he would have learned that a portion of the parking lot is, in fact, cordoned off each winter during icy periods to protect people and automobiles from the potentially devastating impact of ice falling from vast heights. Over on Georgia Avenue, at the Fourth District Police Station, an officer reported that cars have had windows smashed by ice falling off the District's own telecommunications tower that is set down on the station's large back compound. Cars park elsewhere during the icy season. And WTTG's parking lot--home to its own broadcast tower--has also experienced similar problems in winter. One wonders how American Tower proposes to cordon off a major secondary artery, a pedestrian sidewalk, and entryways to local restaurants and businesses during the icy months in winter to protect against causalities in Tenleytown?

Finally, while Mr. Cooper is correct in suggesting that there have been exhaustive studies done on the effects of thermal, athermal ionizing radiation, and thermal non-ionizing radiation, there are virtually no studies on the effects of chronic exposure to athermal, non-ionizing radiation--associated with electromagnetic fields and cell towers. The FCC standards of 200 mw/cm squared are based on the belief that there is no harmful effect at levels too low to cause a thermal effect. But some scientists now believe that they can show cell damage even when there is short term exposure at levels well below the current FCC standards. According to B. Blake Levitt, author of Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer's Guide to the Issues, "It is very difficult to prove cause and effect when it comes to the energy modalities. Brain tumors probably are already beginning to show up in cell phone users. It'll take another 10 to 15 years to show up in those who live near the cell towers. It's going to take another 2 years to gather the data. It's going to take another 3 years for peer review. It's going to take another 4 years to end up in the journals. So we're 20 years away from holding this industry accountable. In the meantime, do the math: there's millions of dollars at stake, and they very cynically know how long it's going to take."

Naturally, when Tenleytown residents challenged the American Tower Company at a press conference to provide readings of existing levels of electromagnetic radiation in the area and to extrapolate the impact of an additional 131 proposed antennas on their tower--including cell phone antennas--would create, they chose to ignore our plea.

I would invite anyone who has not looked at this tower in Tenleytown to come and do so, and to tell us why we should not object to it; why we should not be concerned about its proximity to the sidewalk, local businesses, homes, schools and roadways; and why we should be chastised for a reasonable desire to have a voice in the life and safety of our own community.

Spokesman for the Stop the Tower Coalition

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