Congress Does Zoning

Usually zoning is a local issue and Democrats take the side of people who call themselves environmentalists, rather than that of corporate lobbyists.  But, in the bread and circus world of politics, when the ability of 600,000 people to watch television is at stake, partisanship and federalism are set aside.

At issue: a proposed new TV broadcasting tower on Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado that is unpopular with the neighbors.  The solution: A rider to Christmas tree legislation (i.e. a bundle of supposedly non-controversial legislative loose ends) in the lame duck session of Congress, co-sponsored by Colorado’s U.S. Senators Ken Salazar (D) and Wayne Allard (R), without objection from any of the seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Colorado.For those of you who have been asleep at the remote for the past few years, here is what is going on.

When you watch broadcast television, and don’t use cable TV or satellite TV, your television is using basically the same rules to turn the electromagnetic waves from the broadcast tower into a picture on your screen that have been in place since 1946, as modified in 1954 to accomodate color television.  But, the change made in 1954 was back compatable.  Old TVs could still interpret the new format color transmissions using shades of gray, and black and white televisions made up a meaningful share of the televisions in homes through the 1980s, more than three decades after color television was first made available.  So, no major transition was necessary.

Before 1946, television was an experimental technology and almost no one owned one, and while there have been media format changes in the past, like the change from videotapes to DVDs, none have discontinued widely used broadcast media, so this change is unprecedented in U.S. history.

In April of 1997, the FCC decided that the analog broadcast television system had outlived its usefulness after five decades of service, and approved a new digital standard for converting electromagnetic waves from the broadcast tower (or cable or satellite) into a picture on your screen.  Since then, we have been in a transition period, and most of the nation’s broadcast television providers transmit both digital (new format) and analog (old format) signals, so everyone’s old televisions still work.

The FCC is hot to discontinue old analog television broadcasts rather than continuing them indefinitely, because there are a finite number of broadcasting frequencies in existence, and the FCC would like to free up some of the electromagnetic frequency real estate currently occupied by broadcast television for other newer techologies.

Initially, analog television transmission was supposed to end in 2006.  The deadline was extended.  Now, starting February 17, 2009, old TVs designed to receive only analog broadcasts won’t work.  Everyone who has an old TV that can’t handle digital TV, but doesn’t have cable or satellite TV on the transition date, will be entitled to a free converter box at federal government expense that will allow their old TVs to receive the new signals, one of the largest non-means tested give aways in the history of government. 

Wayne Allard’s office has estimated that about 600,000 residents of metro Denver will be impacted by the switch.  The rest have don’t have TVs, have newer TVs, or have cable or satellite television.

But, the Denver television market is behind schedule.  It is the largest TV market in the nation that doesn’t have digital TV.

Right now the main source of broadcast TV signals for the Denver metropolitan area comes from a huge mess of TV antenna on Lookout Mountain in Golden, the tallest of which is 834 feet tall.  It turns out that there are only a few places it makes sense to put TV towers, because you need to be as high as possible, as close as possible to the center of your broadcast area, without having any mountains in the way, for it to work best.  A skyscraper in downtown Denver, Republic Plaza, was another option, Squaw Mountain is another, and there might be a few other foothill mountain peaks nearby that could have worked.  But, physics mandates that there aren’t a lot of great places to put a digital TV tower.  The other choices also aren’t currently home to major television broadcast tower complexes already owned by broadcasters.

The broadcasters formed a consortium, called the Lake Cedar Group, to replace their existing towers with a new 730 foot digital tower at the same location, and this effort has faced fierce NIMBY opposition in zoning hearing from local residents, their HOA and some environmental groups since 1999, which have in turn produced court battles in a saga too involved for anyone but a lawyer to love. 

Some of the opposition has had its roots in concerns about the dangers of electromagnetic fields, even though the new tower would be no more dangerous than the existing ones and the scientific evidence of any such dangers has been scant.  Concerns have also been raised about  aesthetics, even though the new tower will be shorter than the tallest of the existing ones and will reduce the number of towers on the site.  Concerns were raised about the tower falling over, despite the fact that it would land on the 65 acre Lookout Mountain parcel if that did happen.  Concerns have been raised about the environmental impact.  And, concerns have been raised about the process used to approve the change. 

Meanwhile, Golden began an end run around the zoning process and commenced proceedings to use its eminent domain power to force the consortium to sell the land to it, and thus to force the TV tower to be built elsewhere. 

Bottom line:  Denver doesn’t have a digital television broadcast tower and might not get one in time for the end of analog television.  Engineers claim it will take two years to build the new 730 foot tower.

Salazar and Allard introduced the measure Wednesday of last week in the Senate, it passed the same day, and it passed in the House on Saturday with a gaggle of other bills deemed non-controversial.  The sponsors claim that all members of the Colorado delegation were informed and did not object.  But, no one but a few people in Congress and the lobbyist for the consortium that helped draft the bill was aware of the legislative move until it was a done deal.  It is now headed for President Bush’s signature.  Local government officials and opponents of the TV tower were not tipped off about the decision.

In short, it was classic political sausage making.  Time will tell if there will be further litigation over the issue.  It isn’t clear is the bill that passed Congress last week will impair the eminent domain option that Golden is considering.  If it doesn’t, and Golden continues its condemnation effort, you can expect to see the federal goverment buy that land and lease it back to the Lake Cedar Group sometime before February 17, 2009.

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Andrew Oh-Willeke

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