The Curmudgeon has received word about and has done a little investigating on an evolving issue. It’s the sort of thing that has to make you scratch your head and wonder just exactly where we have taken ourselves. It’s the kind of matter that causes you to feel a bit queasy inside.
We’re back for the moment in the world of Amateur radio (disclaimer: the Curmudgeon is a licensee in the Amateur Radio Service). And we are located in the City of San Diego, California, which is home to about 3,700 ARS licensees. Its enlightened city government has, essentially on its own initiative, written a draft zoning ordinance that would forbid the construction of all new ARS (only) antennas taller than a height of 30 feet AGL. Period! Well — almost period. An enterprising ham would still have the right to file an application for a property development permit for a proposed new, 30+ foot, non-conforming antenna structure; it’s the same permit issued for construction of shopping malls and golf courses. And it requires an $8,000 application fee, etc., etc.
Hams, of course, are the traditional telecommunications “first responders,” on the air with ad-hoc equipment lash-ups and with both prior-established and spontaneous nets operating during and after natural or man-made disasters. This is just when everyone else is trying to assess the damage to communications systems, to make repairs, and to re-start service. The hams were there after Katrina, and they are on duty today after the Haitian earthquake. No one doubts their sincerity or their usefulness. Local governments in the San Diego area have even included established Amateur communications systems into their disaster planning. And well they should: the region lies in an earthquake zone, is prone to spectacular back country brush fires, and is even open to large storms and the subsequent flooding and mudslides during recurrent El Nino weather events.
Note also that this proposed ordinance applies specifically and solely to ARS licensees. It does not mention commercial two-way radio, cellular base stations, broadcasters, short-wave radio listeners, over-the-air TV viewers, CBers, or even owners of home weather stations. These other folks can build as tall as they want, contingent only on filing for and receiving structural building permits. No, San Diego is vindictively punishing just its hams.
So what has caused San Diego city government to declare war on its own citizens? Most likely it was something that, in the Curmudgeon’s opinion, was a tremendously stupid mistake. A local ham, fueled with far more money and ambition than common sense, proposed, somehow was issued building permits for, and built a huge antenna installation at his home. Unfortunately, that home is located in about the most “exclusive” (read: expensive) neighborhood in the city, and the installation is grossly oversized for the lot on which it resides and for the neighborhood in which it is located. It does damage to the aesthetics of the neighborhood. A structure that size should have been built in a rural area, not in the city.
While hams do need tall antenna structures, prudence and common sense would dictate some voluntary limits as to sizes and heights for those in primarily residential areas. (For non-ham readers, the taller the tower is, the more radiation-efficient are high-frequency [“short wave”] antennas mounted atop it, and also the greater the line-of-sight to the horizon for VHF/UHF antennas.) Very tall towers, in the Curmudgeon’s opinion, do not belong in city residential neighborhoods. But ARS towers of lesser height, properly constructed, do. And so also says the FCC, both houses of the U.S. Congress, and the State of California. San Diego, obviously, thinks otherwise.
Meanwhile, “back in the hood” the ham steadfastly refused to admit that he had created a problem, and his neighbors launched into orbit when “the monster” began climbing toward the stars. Unfortunately the neighbors, being members of the higher economic classes, had little difficulty gaining the ears of city governmental officials or of obtaining skilled legal counsel to press their points. And city government responded to their outcry by drafting the proposed ordinance.
The local hams, of course, have no intention of just standing on the sidelines and watching this travesty unfold. They have organized, have brought experienced professional help into the battle, and have been joined by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL, Amateur radio’s national organization) and its legal counsel. Together they are lobbying the city government and the various departments that have their hands in the drafting of the ordinance. It would not be prudent to disclose the hams’ plans in print, however, but the effort is well underway.
The typical outcome from such a clash of interests should be some sort of compromise on the part of the contending parties, i.e., “You can legally build your tower up to XX feet above ground with just a building permit, but if you want to go any higher you will need to file more detailed environmental plans and to obtain a special permit.” Most of the ham population believes that XX ought to be somewhere between 65 and 80 feet, not the city-proposed and essentially stifling 30 feet. Those Amateur-proposed figures are not randomly drawn from a hat; there are good and sufficient engineering reasons underlying them.
But there are no signs of a compromise developing. Sources have told the Curmudgeon that the city is interested only in passing the ordinance as currently written. They will not consider engineering arguments, and they seem not particularly interested in the views of even their own and other local agencies’ disaster preparedness staffs. So it appears that the homeowners could win the day, but any new ordinance will certainly be headed immediately into litigation.
Thus a city government which has huge current deficits in its own operating and its employees’ pension budgets, which oversees crumbling roads, water and sewer lines, and which has ever-shrinking Public Safety department staffs, will squander its limited funds in litigating against a group of volunteers who provide actual, cash-valued services and equipment to the city. These contributions are estimated as annual city staff labor savings of $2.5 million and “in-lieu” one-time communications equipment savings of $6 million.
This thing is an outrage! And it could set a horrible precedent for other myopic cities and towns to follow as well. But it certainly will unleash some local politician, running for re-election, to boast: “Our city libraries may be open only half the number of hours they once were, and if you have an emergency our fire department will get to your house whenever they can fit it in, but, by George, there aren’t going to be any 35 foot-high ham antennas in your neighborhood!”
And, by the way, whatever did happen to the people’s right to use the spectrum that they collectively own?
What do you think?
“Let’s keep SAN DIEGO safe for RF!”
The Old RF Curmudgeon