Opponents say television tower will spoil site

The tower is needed for high-definition TV

May 13, 1999|By Michael Janofsky | Michael Janofsky,New York Times News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Tucked away in the northwest corner of the city is the largest piece of privately owned land in Philadelphia, more than 600 acres high above the Schuylkill River that were once Indian sites and farmland. On one parcel is a scruffy plateau of reeds and underbrush, with only gusting winds to break the silence.

But the serenity is misleading.

For almost a year local residents and a tower company have been engaged in a spirited fight over the company's plans to erect a 1,289-foot steel tower on the plateau to send out the high-definition signals that will be needed for the next generation of television sets. A tower of that size would rank as one of the tallest structures in the United States.

With federal law requiring affiliates of the leading networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC -- in the top 30 markets to replace outmoded analog transmitters with digital models by Nov. 1, and with the rest of the country's 1,600 local stations required to change by 2002, most stations are building new towers or updating old ones without problems.

In some places, however, community opposition based on concerns over health, safety, property values and aesthetics is slowing the change. Neighborhood groups in Denver, for example, have delayed construction of a new tower for the ABC and NBC affiliates by complaining that it was being erected too close to property lines. In Newton, Mass., zoning approval for a tower for Fox and other stations is being challenged in court over safety and health concerns.

Peter Stark, a vice president of the American Tower Corp. of Boston, which is planning the towers in Newton and Philadelphia, said as many as a quarter of the company's 57 tower projects could be delayed by challenges from community groups.

But nowhere, he said, has the opposition been so strong as in Philadelphia. "On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the most opposition," he said, "Philadelphia is right up there."

The plateau site lies about six miles up the Schuylkill from downtown and falls within acreage that is zoned residential. It contains just a few houses, several of them made of stone and built more than a century ago. The remainder is mostly rolling fields and woodlands, 500 acres of which are part of a nature preserve that attracts thousands of hikers, birders and photographers each year. In the 1940s, the site was considered for the United Nations.

Opponents of the tower, which would rise about as high as the Empire State Building, say it does not belong in such a rustic setting.

Besides spoiling views, they say, it would cause health problems through electromagnetic radiation, lower property values and -- worst of all, to many residents -- spur commercial development.

Siting tall towers in many big cities is not easy. In addition to zoning laws, planners have to consider land contour -- the higher, the better -- indigenous wildlife, air traffic patterns and the archaeological significance of the land.

Here, these considerations led a number of local stations to build towers at a site above the river, closer to the Roxborough section of town that nearby residents call "the antenna farm." It now includes 10 towers, most of them taller than 1,000 feet. American Tower considered the farm but rejected it after three brothers -- Rocco, Joseph and Louis Del Monte -- made available 27 acres less than a mile away that includes the plateau.

Company officials said this location ensures greater safety because it is farther from houses than the antenna farm and is not accessible by public roads.

The 27 acres are owned by a former Philadelphian, Rodman Barker, 69, whose family acquired the property more than 100 years ago and worked it as a fruit and vegetable farm through the 1950s. Barker, who now lives in Council, Idaho, sold the Del Montes an option last year to develop the land.

Barker, a retired forest ranger, said he was well aware of fears by local residents that a tower would spoil the landscape and bring on development. But he insisted that was why he sold the brothers the option. He said they promised him that they intended to live on the Barker property after the tower was erected. The Del Montes, who own a landscaping business near the Barker farm, did not respond to several telephone messages, seeking comment.

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