Monday, April 23, 2007

Building Permits Mean Nothing in District of Columbia

The District of Columbia government halts the building of a new cellular phone tower seven months into its construction, despite having issued permits permitting construction, thereby costing its builder $250 million in various expenses and leaving area residents without adequate cellular service.

Government Approves Building Permit, Then Outlaws Construction

Residents of the Tenleytown neighborhood of northwest Washington, D.C. aren't happy with the quality of cellular phone service in their area. But when construction was started on a new tower that would improve both cellular service and television broadcasts, those same, politically-powerful residents complained to the District of Columbia City Council that the tower would be too tall. The council then halted the construction, at an estimated cost of $250 million to the tower's owner, American Towers Corporation (AT).

In March 2000, 13 city agencies approved a permit for AT to build a 756-foot tower in Tenleytown to improve cellular phone service and serve as a new broadcast tower for several local television stations. The new tower was to be constructed in an area that already contained several broadcast towers.

Seven months after issuing the permits and after the building of the tower was well underway, then-Mayor Anthony Williams ordered a halt to construction. In conjunction with that order, the City Council invalidated AT's permits by passing the "Moratorium on the Construction of Certain Telecommunications Towers Emergency Act of 2001."

The D.C. government did not condemn the AT property or offer to buy the land from AT - officials merely outlawed the completion of the tower. It remains unfinished; standing at nearly 300 feet.

AT sued the District of Columbia and Mayor Williams in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. AT argued that it was victimized by the Tenleytown residents who had the ear of local politicians and who wanted to stop the tower for aesthetic reasons. Although city officials had approved the permit to build the tower, lawyers for the city argued that AT's tower would have been too tall. AT asked for $250 million in damages to permit it to recover money the company had already invested, delayed construction costs, the cost of litigation and projected profits the company would lose by not finishing the tower.

AT did not win its case in Superior Court, and the lawsuit was subsequently rejected by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Seeing dim prospects and mounting legal bills in their federal case, AT decided not to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The company's appeals to the D.C. Office of Zoning have been equally unsuccessful.

The District of Columbia then ordered AT to remove the unfinished tower. However, the D.C. Superior Court stayed enforcement of the District's order, while a separate lawsuit brought by AT seeking damages for the unfinished tower is before the court.

Bob Morgan, vice president and general manager of AT, expressed the company's dismay in an op-ed published in the Washington Times. "What seems clear to anyone who gives some serious thought to the situation is that the administration's decision is plainly a matter of favoritism. A few members of a small, politically-important neighborhood start pumping their fists in the air and the administration springs into action."

Not only is AT out millions of dollars, but many Tenleytown residents' cellular phones still don't work well.

Sources: Washington Post (November 1, 2002), Northwest Current (March 19, 2003), Washington Times (October 23, 2000; November 30, 2003)

**Read this story and 99 other all-new outrageous stories of government regulatory abuse in the new fifth edition of the National Center for Public Policy Research's book, Shattered Dreams: One Hundred Stories of Government Abuse.

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Reprinted with permission from The National Center for Public Policy Research.

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