San Diego It was like a scene from War of the Worlds. On a late Sunday afternoon in spring, Donna New heard her husband calling from the deck of their hillside home in the West Muirlands area of La Jolla. "He was yelling, 'Donna, Donna, come out here.' He is not an expressive, emotional kind of guy, so I could tell by his voice that something unusual was happening. I ran outside to see what was going on."
What she saw was what looked like a giant dragonfly rising up from down the hill. As the object passed eye level and kept going, she could see that it was an antenna. It was supported by a telescoping tower anchored below in the yard of her neighbor, a man named Howard White.
The antenna finally stopped more than 40 feet above the News' deck and 85 feet above its base. "It was so tall you could see it from the cul-de-sac in front of my house," New recalls. "I immediately called my next-door neighbors and asked, 'Peggy, Russ, what in the heck do you think is going on here?' They didn't know. I went back out on the deck and yelled down the hill, 'What are you doing, and is that thing legal?' "
No answer came from below. Donna New wasn't the only neighbor to notice the antenna. Across the street from Howard White's house, Becky Etess had seen the tower during its construction. "But I thought it was some kind of concrete pumping machinery. But an architect we had went over and asked what the tower was for. That's when we found out we were going to have an 85-foot tower across the street with an antenna on top."
Next door to White, Jim and Barbara Dudl had also thought the tower was a piece of construction equipment. "Then, one day," Barbara recalls, "I came out and saw something I hadn't seen before."
Though the tower sat in the middle of her neighbor's yard, the antenna arms -- 70 feet across -- were so long that they extended almost to the property line between the two lots. "Jim and I walked over and talked to Howard," Barbara recalls. "I asked him, 'How did this thing come about, and why didn't you tell us anything about it?' And he said, 'Well, I knew you would have said it is ugly.' And I said, 'You're right, I do think it is ugly. I also would have said to you that I think you have significantly devalued the price of our home by putting this thing practically in our driveway.' And I said, 'I wonder if that would have made any difference to you.' And he said, 'No,' and then he later mentioned to my husband that he didn't think it devalued the price of his own home."
Jim adds, "Of course, it hasn't devalued his home. If somebody bought his home, he could take it down. If he buys my home, he can't take it down."
Etess says a conservative estimate of her property's loss is $500,000. New, who is a real estate broker, says her own house has lost one of its prime assets: its ocean view. "I've gotten professional opinions on the matter, and I think my house has been devalued by over a million dollars," she claims. "Maybe as much as a million and a half."
White believes those figures are ridiculous. "If her house has dropped in value by a million and a half dollars, I'll buy it from her at that price. You know where the most expensive houses in La Jolla are? At the top of Mount Soledad, right next to 94 antenna towers, all of which are bigger than mine. It's not hurting their property values."
Contrary to lowering neighborhood property values, White says he may have increased them. When phone lines are severed, cell-phone circuits are jammed, and 800-megahertz fire and police communications fail during catastrophic events, ham radios can still be used to communicate. White is quick to point out that ham radio was the only form of emergency communication during long stretches of the Cedar fire of October 2003 and for days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "Except for ham radio," White says, "there was no communications during the fires for several days, period. And myself and several hundred other ham radio volunteers basically saved people's lives because we were the only communications around. We were communicating on behalf of the fire departments, police departments, and the California Department of Forestry. What we do is, we have base stations set up -- my house being one of the base stations -- and we send volunteers to go out with the fire departments. We send them out with portable units. During the fires, we provided a significant proportion of the communication. In this county, there were 500 guys who volunteered and went out there and saved people's lives. I actually did some operating from my house initially, and then my stuff just wasn't high enough, and I couldn't work it from then on. That's why I built a new tower."
White's claims seem grandiose, but a quick Internet search reveals several emergency-response ham radio clubs in San Diego County alone and hundreds across the nation. White is involved with most all of the local groups. "I ran the CERT -- Community Emergency Response Team -- drill here in May, during which we simulated a bomb attack. We were providing rescue facilities for a quick-response basis. We dispatched ambulances, we dispatched fire trucks, we basically controlled the communications for the emergency. Ham radios save lives. We saved lives during the fires."
White adds, "We hams passed vital emergency and health and welfare information during the Katrina emergency too."
Stories in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal documented the communication services hams provided following Katrina. It's because ham radios can be used in emergencies that the Federal Communications Commission offers protection to the antennas, which are predictably unpopular with neighbors. A pertinent section of the commission's regulations states, "A station antenna structure may be erected at heights and dimensions sufficient to accommodate amateur service communications." Another section states that state and local authorities must make "reasonable accommodations" of amateur radio antennas.