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.
What is necessary in terms of tower and antenna size for the purpose of emergency situations has been a source of contention between White and his neighbors. White says he needs the tall tower and wide antenna because, "I'm set up to run 40 meters [wavelength], which we use for emergency stuff."
Barbara Dudl responds, "But we've been in contact with other local hammers who tell us 40 meters is not the wavelength used for emergency work. Two meters is the emergency frequency. Forty meters is used to talk to people on the other side of the world."
White himself suggested that he put up his outsized tower and antenna for hobby purposes when, on March 26, he said in a Yahoo online group for amateur radio operators, "I bought this thing so that I could get to be a big contest gun on 40 meters."
The contests he referred to are competitions among hams to see who can make contact with the largest number of foreign countries in a given amount of time. White mentioned he had contacted people in over 100 different countries in one such competition.
Since White erected the antenna, the Dudls have scoured the websites of emergency amateur radio clubs in Ramona, Escondido, Rancho Bernardo, East County, and Coronado, plus local chapters of the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service and the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. "What we've found," Jim says, "is these groups list two meters as their emergency frequency. We also found that the ham community has set up an extended network of two-meter repeaters."
Repeaters are the fixed devices that relay radio messages between two stations on opposite sides of physical obstacles such as mountains. "A 40-meter beam antenna," Dudl continues, "with horizontal elements, like Howard's, directs the signal directly towards the horizon and not vertically to the ionosphere. What the two hams we talked to said is that Howard's antenna is good for distances greater than 3000 miles away. A 10-foot pole is all you need [for emergency purposes]. You definitely don't want a 70-foot directional horizontal antenna, because all these do is focus you very much on 1 or 2 percent of the horizon."
Jim continues, "It is my feeling that Howard is not really being honest about the need for protection. I mean, I am interested in protecting our house and our community. I might be in trouble sometime. I want him to have that 10-foot antenna. I want ham operators to have an emergency system. But beyond the 10-foot pole, I think, is for personal use and maybe ego."
White concedes that most emergency communication is done on two meters. But he points out that two-meter communication relies on mountaintop repeaters, many of which were burned or lost power during the Cedar fire. And, he adds, "much of the short-range ham communications, such as two meters, went off the air in the hurricane-stricken areas because the storm destroyed much of the local infrastructure. However, high-frequency communication -- 20 meter, 40 meter, 75 meter -- was able to fill the gaps left in the network."
Steve Early, president of the Palomar Amateur Radio Club, says that both high-frequency and two-meter communications are needed for emergencies. During the Cedar fire, he says, "Environmental factors left only high frequency as a 100 percent reliable communications medium. Because for all intents and purposes high frequency is not significantly affected by the environmental factors that tend to paralyze two-meter operations. High frequency is terrain-following, out to a few hundred miles. This means that the signal hugs the surface of the earth, including into deep canyons. I am one of the many in-the-field emergency operators who rely on fixed-site operators such as Howard White to relay whatever emergency or priority messages I may have for such agencies and organizations as the San Diego/Imperial Counties chapter of the American Red Cross, California Department of Forestry, and local fire and law enforcement departments."
Whatever its purpose, White's tower is legal. He was granted a building permit for the project more than a year ago, and the project passed all inspections during the building process. However, for the time being, he has agreed to a city request to keep the antenna at its lowest height, 25 feet. Former assistant city attorney Bill Witt signed off on the permit, despite a city height limit of 30 feet for new construction west of Interstate 5.
The Dudls are both angry. Jim is angry with White, who he believes derives satisfaction from having the antenna. "He has disregarded his neighbors," Jim says. "And this is a lifelong pattern for him. He told me he has had towers at other houses, 75 and 100 feet tall, and that everybody thought that they were ugly. He sort of puffed up when he told me that, and he seemed to look prideful when he said that he had done these things."
Barbara Dudl is "more angry at the city, because laws such as the 30-foot height limit are put into place to protect the citizens. I feel that Bill Witt was absolutely, totally irresponsible to sign off on something like that. He not only dropped the ball, he threw it at us."
(Calls to the city attorney's office and the planning department were not returned.)