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Tenley tower trouble

Attorney puts city’s liability in the millions

(Published October 9, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

City officials admitted there were errors made in the approval process for a 756-foot-high telecommunications tower under construction in Tenleytown that could end up costing the city millions of dollars.

D.C. taxpayers could be asked to pay millions of dollars to compensate a Manassas company for losses incurred due to city officials’ decision to revoke permits for a telecommunications tower being built just north of Tenley Circle.

"What’s really going to cost the city money is the mayor’s decision to gain political favor from a small group of residents," attorney John Brennan said Oct. 6, after the company he represents – American Tower Systems – was informed by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs that officials planned to halt construction of the 756-foot tower at Brandywine and 41st streets, just off Wisconsin Avenue NW. Brennan said American Tower stands to lose "hundreds of millions of dollars" in potential income if the tower, which city officials previously approved, is not completed.

City officials have acknowledged numerous errors by city employees in allowing the construction to begin and admitted in published reports that the mistakes could wind up costing taxpayers millions.

The city’s decision came after days of loud protest by Ward 3 residents, who complained that the required public notice for such a project never occurred. Residents said they only became aware of the project, which documents show the city began moving through the approval process more than a year ago, when the footprint of the huge structure seemed to appear overnight. The tower is being built immediately adjacent to a popular restaurant’s entrance.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams publicly opposed the tower – even though his administration approved it – after the citizens protested that they had never been informed of the project, and he ordered DCRA to review the application and approvals to find a way of stopping the project.

American Tower Systems was given until noon Oct. 10 to provide DCRA documents or evidence that all permitting procedures were properly followed. Acting Director Carlynn Fuller was expected to make a final determination by 5 p.m. that day. Fuller said her review has found numerous "procedural errors" made by the department during the application process.

American Tower Systems’ lawyers, however, insist they did everything correctly. They said when a "stop work" order was issued last month, DCRA reviewed their permits, found them in order and let them resume construction.

Neighborhood residents leading the fight to stop the tower say they’ve found several instances in the process when DCRA bungled the application’s processing and incorrectly signed off on the project when further review was legally necessary. At the very least, the height of the tower would necessitate a zoning variance that would require notification sent to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and a public hearing -- neither of which happened.

"It’s such a piecemeal procedure that no one grasped the overall impact of this huge project," area resident Jo Cooper said. "Apparently it just slipped through."

The Williams administration has not identified city officials who approved the project to go forward. Fuller, who took over the helm at DCRA last month when Lloyd Jordan left to join a prominent law firm’s local office, said her agency didn’t follow its own procedures on several occasions during the process.

"You can’t isolate one error from the others," she said. "There were many errors."

Cooper, who helped collect over 900 signatures opposing the tower in one weekend, said she is confident that with the mayor’s backing they can stop the construction permanently and force the company to tear down what it has built.

"If the city is not prepared to stop this and tear down what they’ve put up, we will continue our activism," Cooper said.

American Tower Systems filed its original application in March 1999 to build the tower at an estimated cost of $5.6 million. The application said the structure would hold a total of 169 television and other telecommunications antennas mounted on it and a 5,800-square-foot television studio would be built on the site. Final approvals were granted earlier this year.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator