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Senate action angers Ward 3

Amendment to force through cell phone towers in Rock Creek Park

draws fire from residents, elected officials

(Published July 12, 1999)


Staff Writer

Ward 3 residents say they are outraged at Congress for pressing the National Park Service and the National Capital Planning Commission to approve Bell Atlantic Mobile’s controversial proposal to erect two 100-foot cell phone towers in Rock Creek Park.

Applications for the antennas were approved in April by the National Park Service, which oversees the Northwest Washington park. But opposition from many city residents, environmentalists, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and NCPC have so far blocked the park service from issuing the necessary permits for erecting the antennas.

On July 1, the Senate included an amendment in the District’s fiscal 2000 budget that would virtually clear the way for the antennas if the amendment remains in the final budget bill that emerges from a House-Senate conference.

"Neither federal agencies or local agencies should block this," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-South Dakota.

Councilman Phil Mendelson, D-At large, is among Ward 3 residents who are furious with Daschle for trying to force the planning commission to approve construction of the towers.

On July 9, Mendelson sent a letter to Daschle urging him "to reconsider the amendment and to allow the review process to continue unimpeded." The councilman noted NCPC currently is seeking independent analysis to clarify whether "large section of the park currently lack reliable communications service…(since) no other carrier has complained of the problem Bell Atlantic asserts."

Mendelson said Daschle’s amendment also seeks to override six separate federal statutes and regulations and would preclude judicial review.

"It’s sad commentary on how Congress can step into local business," said ANC3G Commissioner Ann Renshaw. Renshaw and other commissioners plan to lobby the House and Senate to eliminate the amendment.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said she hopes to be able to resolve the issue.

More than 50 public witnesses testified before NCPC July 1 about the ugliness of the towers, their intrusiveness in a national and historic park, and the detrimental effects of the towers on the environment and health. NCPC voted 6-4, with one abstention, to get an independent analysis done on alternative technologies and alternative sites that may have fewer negative impacts than the towers.

A 130-foot tall tower is proposed for the maintenance yard near Rock Creek Park’s nature center. The other antenna, 100 feet tall, would be placed at the Fitzgerald Tennis Center. Both towers would have a nine-foot tall, 12-foot by 30-foot shed next to them.

"We’re trying to be as unobtrusive as possible," said Audrey Schaffer, spokeswoman for Bell Atlantic Mobile.

Bell Atlantic claims that unless the new towers are built, their customers won’t be able to receive clear phone transmissions when passing through the park. At the hearing Bell Atlantic Mobile supporters said cell phones are essential to public safety, particularly to the U.S. Park Police.

"They’re running around D.C.’s home rule act," said Commissioner Joseph Bishop. Bishop, has been researching the health effects towers have caused in other countries and said he doesn’t understand why the information was not included in the environmental impact assessment done in March. In his research, Bishop has cited cases in which radiation from similar towers’ radio waves have caused cancer, leukemia and high mortality rates in Hawaii, Great Britain and Australia.

Opponents of the towers also speculate Bell Atlantic is trying to save money by not looking into alternatives.

"We want to maintain Rock Creek as a park, not a commercial venture," said Renshaw.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator