Good Viewing?

Satellite: The Fcc Says Homeowners Can Install Tv Satellite Dishes On Their Property. But Homeowner Associations Worry That The Devices Will Ruin The Aesthetics Of Their Communities.

April 27, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Area homeowner associations are scrambling to protect scenic views in their neighborhoods now that the FCC has sent a clear signal that homeowners have a right to install television antennas and small satellite dishes on their properties.

"As soon as you say `satellite dish,' the emotional temperature goes up," said Ben Frederick III, owner of Frederick Realty, which manages properties for 10 homeowner associations in the area.

With the spring sports-viewing season in full swing, homeowner associations are trying to figure out the implications of a Federal Communications Commission ruling that took effect in October.

The ruling applies to digital broadcast satellites and multipoint distribution service systems (dishes that receive multiple signals) a meter or smaller, and to television antennas installed in communities represented by homeowner associations. It does not apply to condominiums and apartment buildings, which the FCC will deal with in a ruling expected later this spring.

The action comes as part of last year's sweeping Telecommunications Act passed by Congress, which says that local governments and homeowner associations cannot ban homeowners from installing satellite dishes and antennas. In addition, the act empowered the FCC to rule that associations cannot cause owners undue expense, delay. or diminish signal reception.

Homeowner associations that have architectural restrictions, however, still have some measure of control. For example, a homeowner might be required to paint or screen the antenna, or locate it in a more aesthetically pleasing location -- so long as it doesn't prevent the homeowner from receiving a clear signal.

"It's the largest legislative victory we've ever achieved," said Chris King, manager of retail relations with the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association, an organization that represents dish owners and dealers.

But David Caplan and Barry Yatovitz, property managers at Metro Property Management in Baltimore, said the ruling introduces a great deal of uncertainty. In the past, Caplan said, enforcement of satellite dish regulations was simple: "It was either allowed or it wasn't."

Now associations must be able to prove that their restrictions don't unduly burden the homeowner, and Caplan and Yatovitz fear communities could become marred by antennas and satellite dishes.

"None of the associations are against dishes," Yatovitz said. "But we're talking about the bridge of a battleship vs. not the bridge of a battleship."

King, whose organization fields dozens of calls a day from associations, homeowners and retailers trying to figure out what the FCC ruling means, has found only a few instances of associations trying to keep homeowners from installing small dishes.

Columbia, which has covenants governing everything from the color of paint to the location of compost piles, has had no trouble with satellite dishes since the FCC ruling, said Maggie Brown, head of the architectural guidelines committee for the Columbia Association. "They may be present, but you're not going to notice it," she said.

Columbia never banned satellite dishes outright, but the association did clash with homeowners who tried to erect large dishes without permission by disguising them as patio umbrellas.

Columbia attorney Michael Nagle, who advises 120 homeowners associations in Maryland and the District of Columbia, said the FCC ruling allows communities that want dishes to have them without going through the burdensome process of changing their bylaws. At the same time, it affords enough protection for neighborhood aesthetics, he said, adding, "The rule is very reasonable."

The Community Association Institute, a national organization representing community associations, agrees problems have been few so far. The organization has prepared a book to advise associations on how to preserve aesthetics while permitting homeowners to have dishes and antennas.

"We've got to change with the times," said Lara Howley, coordinator of legislative and public affairs of the Community Associations Institute.

David O. Feldmann, whose company manages property for 60 homeowner associations in the metropolitan area, doesn't believe dishes will overwhelm neighborhoods. "I just don't think there's that much demand for it," he said.

Although less than 4 percent of the homes with television in Maryland subscribe to satellite programming, their numbers are growing, according to the Media Business Corp., which monitors satellite industry trends.

The Colorado company reported that there were 70,422 satellite programming subscribers in the state in January -- up from 54,535 six months earlier.

Nationwide, there are about 6 million households subscribing to satellite television programming -- a number that doesn't include the owners of big dishes, who can receive programming for free.

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