Three times Donald F. Esslinger has sought permission to erect a satellite dish behind his Northeast Baltimore home. And three times, the city zoning board has turned him down, saying the dish would "endanger the public health, security, general welfare and morals" of the people.
It's a 6-year-old dispute in which Mr. Esslinger's neighbors on Bauernwood Avenue have complained that the 8-foot-wide, white aluminum dish was "an eyesore" and "unsightly." "A huge trash can lid," said one resident who likened it, on a sunny day, to the Starship Enterprise.
On Wednesday, the dispute will move to Baltimore Circuit Court. Mr. Esslinger has appealed the zoning board's decision of last summer, which said the dish was "an intrusion into the peaceful enjoyment of the nearby residents' homes."
The real issue isn't the satellite dish at all, says Mr. Esslinger, a 71-year-old widower who operates a ham radio from a spare room in his brick, two-story home. It's the 40-foot radio antenna in his backyard that enables him to talk to amateur radio operators the world over, from Mongolia to Australia, the South Pole to Japan.
When his neighbors talk about Mr. Esslinger's hobby, the stories they tell sound like ones detailed in the pages of the National Enquirer. The neighbors contend that when Mr. Esslinger broadcasts on his ham radio set they can hear his voice through the telephone wires.
His round-the-world conversations are picked up on their television sets, their radios and their baby monitors, the neighbors maintain.
"He's got a 40-foot antenna hooked up to it that wangs in the evening when he decides to crank it around," neighbor Ron Vichich once told the city zoning board. "Voices come through the pipes. You couldn't watch your TV set. You couldn't even sit on your couch -- it would just reverberate through the house."
The neighbors took their concerns to the Federal Communications Commission, which investigates such complaints. But the federal agency found that the power on Mr. Esslinger's equipment was within the legal limits, according to Rocky Campagna, a spokesman for the agency's Baltimore office. Mr. Campagna said the problems stemmed from the kinds of electronic equipment Mr. Esslinger's neighbors owned.
Mr. Campagna said that to reduce interference on a telephone, the neighbors could put a small device on their phones called a capacitor. Mr. Esslinger claims that's what he has advocated all along. The device costs less than $1, he said.
Then the neighbors started complaining about the satellite dish, which Mr. Esslinger had installed without a proper permit. Mr. Esslinger lost that fight in 1986 and had to take down the dish.
Once the dish came down, Mr. Esslinger's neighbors maintained that the interference on their phones and television sets diminished -- even though technical experts say there is no relationship between a satellite dish, which only receives signals, and the ham radio antenna.
But the neighbors believe the dish and the antenna are related. How else to explain that they have less interference on their TVs, video cassette recorders and telephones?
"I don't want to deny this man his hobby," said John Howard, a neighbor who lives up the street from Mr. Esslinger.
"He lives alone. He's at retirement age. You want to enjoy the things you enjoy. But you don't do it to inconvenience neighbors."
To Mr. Esslinger, the dispute over the satellite dish has evolved into a fight for his constitutional rights. If he chooses to have a satellite dish -- as a resident just one street over does -- he should be able to have one, Mr. Esslinger said.
"There's a lot of television up there in the sky and it's for free. There are all kinds of programs. You wouldn't believe it, including medical operations on human beings. Lots of sports. Lots of good movies," said Mr. Esslinger, who worked in the past as a television broadcast engineer and in the city Police Department's Radio Division.
"I used to play ice hockey when I was young. I enjoyed the game and I could never get it on local television. That was one of the deciding factors" to install a satellite dish, he said.
When the case goes to court this week, Mr. Esslinger's attorney said he is going to try and convince the judge the law is on his client's side. The lawyer, Anthony P. Palaigos, said city law sets up different standards for the installation of a satellite dish and a TV antenna. Federal regulations bar such discriminations.
"We've had a difficult time convincing the zoning board that their zoning law has been put on the shelf, so to speak, by the Federal Communications Commission," Mr. Palaigos said.