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More cell towers in park?

(Published July 26, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

At least four other cell phone companies have expressed interest in placing antenna towers in Rock Creek Park, and if Bell Atlantic Mobile is allowed to build theirs, federal law would require that all cell phone companies be granted the same right to install antennas in the city’s park.

Activists say they are concerned that an amendment to the District’s fiscal 2000 budget, being pushed by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, will turn Rock Creek Park into an "antenna farm."

Hours after the National Capital Planning Commission voted 6-4 July 1 to require an independent analysis of alternate technologies and alternate sites for the towers, the Senate included, without debate, Daschle’s amendment to the D.C. budget. The amendment would essentially force the National Park Service to make a decision on the transmitter towers within 90 days of its enactment, usurping the NCPC’s authority in the matter.

A similar amendment was not included in the House version of D.C.’s budget, which was reported out of committee but has yet to be considered by the full House of Representatives. A joint congressional committee will be required to iron out differences in the House and Senate versions of the city’s budget before it receives final approval.

"Neither federal agencies nor local agencies should block this," Daschle, D-S.D., said about the towers when he proposed his amendment.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said she recently spoke with Daschle and he has agreed to withdraw his amendment if a solution acceptable to all the parties involved can be negotiated.

"I can’t say that I’ve found a solution, but I am actively searching for one," Norton said. "The solution that is on the table is clearly not acceptable to all parties." She said part of the discussions she is holding include alternate technologies and alternate sites for the antennas.

According to Public Disclosure Inc., a non-partisan company that collects information about campaign donations and posts it on their web site at www.tray.com, Daschle received $61,420 in campaign contributions from the telecommunications industry during the last six months of 1998. That figure includes $9,000 from Bell Atlantic, $7,920 from AT&T, and $7,000 from Sprint. According to documents from the park service, those three companies, as well as Cellular One and American Personal Communications, have met with park service officials to inquire about placing antennas in the park. Cellular One filed an application in February 1996 to build towers in the park, withdrew it last year in order to provide more information, and has not resubmitted it. In a March 1997 letter to the Rock Creek Park superintendent, the company outlined its plans to install as many as seven transmitters in the park and the possibility of an additional transmitter in Whitehaven Park in Georgetown.

Despite these documents and meetings, park service official John Parsons said at the July 1 meeting of the NCPC insisted that Bell Atlantic’s proposed antennas are "the only two that we know of that are being brought forth." Parsons could not be reached for comment.

Opponents of the cell towers are concerned that if Bell Atlantic’s permits are granted they would be unable to stop other companies from erecting towers in the park. A provision in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that "the regulation of the placement, construction and modification of personal wireless service facilities by any State or local government…shall not unreasonably discriminate among providers of functionally equivalent services."

Bell Atlantic’s proposal calls for a 130-foot tower at the park’s maintenance yard near Rock Creek Park’s nature center and anther 100-foot tower placed near the Fitzgerald Center. Both towers would have nine foot tall sheds next to them.

The Daschle amendment has been widely criticized and condemned by many D.C. residents, environmental activists and elected officials, including every member of the city council and the mayor.

Norton, who called Daschle a "true blue home rule supporter," downplayed the amount of campaign money the minority leader received from the telecommunications industry.

"They give money to everybody," Norton said. "I’ve probably gotten money from them and I oppose them in this issue."

Public Disclosure’s web site shows Norton received only one contribution from any telecommunications company in the last election cycle: $2,000 from Bell Atlantic.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator