Mount Washington man fights for his piece of sky 12-year fight with city on satellite dish may go to Supreme Court

March 26, 1996|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

For nearly 12 years, Leon Neufeld has been fighting for a piece of the sky, because somewhere up there are Spanish bullfighters and the women his dreams are made of.

All he needs is the satellite dish that can pluck their images out of the air and bring them into his Mount Washington home, but the city of Baltimore is battling him all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The dish, you see, would violate the city's "30-foot setback" ordinance prohibiting residents from putting most large objects on their front lawns, a rule aiming to preserve the beauty of Baltimore's open spaces.

For most people, the regulation simply means they must put their satellite dish in the back yard or on the roof. But Mr. Neufeld -- a computer scientist at the National Security Agency, the government's top-secret eavesdropping center -- said he's done a geometric analysis that shows his dish needs to be on the front lawn.

"The trajectory and the trigonometry don't add up. In my case, the specialty programming I'm interested in is low to the horizon and won't make it over all these trees," he said, referring to 60- and 70-foot-high poplar trees towering over his half-acre lot in the 2400 block of Cross Country Blvd.

What's driving his appeal to the Supreme Court? Pornographic Triple-X rated programs out of Canada, bullfighting contests from Mexico and Europe, and other "exotic things you can't get if you buy the city's cable package," said an unabashed Mr. Neufeld, 49.

"Being a bachelor, it's OK for me to watch these things," he said. "The bottom line is it's a transmission, it's air. It's a commercial product and it's something I want to watch in the privacy of my home."

Mr. Neufeld and his attorney, William E. Seekford, have maintained through 12 years of zoning hearings and appellate arguments that the city's setback ordinance imposes "an unconstitutional burden on his First Amendment right to receive information."

But time and time again, they have lost the argument in court. And Mr. Neufeld has spent the decade or so watching videocassette movies at his house, pledging never to buy the city's cable service.

"Why should I pay them for something I could get myself at less cost?" he said. "Besides, the quality of the service stinks." But the fight itself has become more costly than any cable package. To date, he's racked up about $100,000 in legal fees.

An issue that stays

It's an issue that seemingly never will go away for Mr. Neufeld, who in 1984 defied the city rule and put up the 10- by-9-foot dish anyway. After 11 fines of $100 each levied against him by indignant city officials, he took the dish down and filed a federal lawsuit in 1987.

Technology has advanced and made satellite dishes smaller -- some as small as 18 inches in diameter -- but Mr. Neufeld said he still wants the larger dish. Such dishes can pull in 200 channels or more, while the smaller models range around 50 to 70 channels.

"Usually the guy who wants the larger dish is a couch potato guy looking for niche programming," said Walt Frazier, an area dish salesman known as "Dr. Dish" on his Saturday afternoon satellite technology show on WCBM Radio. "He's the guy who wants to have it all."

Along with live feeds from Bosnia, religious channels from around the world, and cricket matches in Northern England, the big dishes also offer about a dozen "soft porn or Triple-X channels," Mr. Frazier said.

"These are channels that go beyond the Playboy Channel," Mr. Frazier said wryly. "One out of 100 people who buy the dish admit they get it for that. But my personal opinion is that about 10 out of 100 tune right in to the porn channels as soon as the installer leaves the house."

Mr. Neufeld, a white-bearded, earnest-speaking man, said he isn't a zealot for pornography. But he is one of those honest enough to acknowledge he wants it.

"There's a bunch of the dirty channels that come out of Canada, and I think one used to be in New York," he said. "It's not all I'd watch. There's also the bullfights, canoeing, skiing, and other sports events that would be fun to get."

Neighbors surprised

Mount Washington residents, some of whom testified at a zoning appeals hearing more than a decade ago that the dish was an eyesore to the community, were surprised to hear that Mr. Neufeld is still battling it out. They had given the issue up for dead years ago.

"It's rare when someone is technologically aware enough to want to fight to have the dish placed on their front lawn, so it's an interesting argument," said Stanley Fine, chairman of the land use and zoning committee for the Mount Washington Improvement Association. "But frankly, I haven't heard any talk about that dish for years. Odd that he still wants it."

He lives alone

Mr. Neufeld, who lives alone in a cabin-like house he designed himself, said the conflict started years ago as a minor skirmish with "the preponderance of lawyers" in his Mount Washington neighborhood.

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