There was a time when Ina and Richard Chavez could look out their bedroom window to a clear view south over trim rows of subdivision homes in their San Ysidro neighborhood, all the way to the blue-gray mountains of Tijuana.
But since August, the view has been obstructed by a huge metal object that pokes into the sky like an upside-down umbrella.
"The king-sized monster," as Richard Chavez calls it, is a 12-foot-wide satellite dish that one of his neighbors has attached to the roof of his two-story home.
"Every morning, it makes me mad. When we open our blinds, that's all we see," Ina Chavez said last week.
The Chavezes have been unsuccessfully fighting "the monster" for months, taking their complaints to other neighbors, to San Diego zoning inspectors and finally to the city Planning Commission. So far they have had no success. No San Diego law yet restricts where one can erect a satellite dish.
But that may change soon. On Thursday, city planning commissioners will consider an ordinance limiting where such dishes may be placed and requiring screens or landscaping around them.
San Diego is one of four cities in the county and dozens around the nation that have recently drafted regulations concerning the proliferating dishes, which critics term a space-age form of blight.
"They're popping up like mushrooms," said Jim Griffin, city planning director in El Cajon, which six months ago placed a moratorium on roof-mounted satellite dishes. The city plans a public hearing in March to consider a new ordinance on the dishes.
Satellite dish enthusiasts argue against most regulations, suggesting that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that those who dislike the dishes are being arbitrary.
"There isn't enough abuse to justify the bureaucratic machinery" of new regulations, said Bob Dudley, owner of Rexcom Inc., a satellite dish retailer in Sorrento Valley. "If the dish is 10 feet high in the backyard, what difference is that from a barbecue?"
Constitutional guarantees of free speech prohibit any restrictions on the dishes, argues Chuck Hewitt, executive vice president of SPACE, a national organization representing satellite dish dealers. SPACE has successfully sued cities that have used zoning to keep out satellite dishes.
"When it comes to looks, we start questioning whether they're preventing citizens from using the new technology to broaden their information," Hewitt said. "I question if anyone can objectively address the issue of whether (the dishes) are attractive."
City planning departments have only recently noticed the fledgling home satellite dish industry. Their interest has coincided with the sudden boom in antenna sales.
Electronics buffs set up the first home "earth stations" in about 1978 in their backyards, Hewitt said. By 1980, SPACE estimates there were 4,000 to 6,000 satellite dishes around the nation and today that number has grown to more than a million.
The dishes allow their owners to establish what retailer Dudley calls "your own personal cable system." A typical dish, from 10 to 12 feet in diameter, can receive signals from 17 satellites, each beaming down as many as 24 channels of news, movies, sports and information. Most viewers with a good system say they can receive more than 100 channels.
Without subscribing to a cable network, dish owners can watch first-run movies, baseball games blacked out by the networks, even daily broadcasts from Canada's House of Commons--in French or English. They can also "time-shift," watching "Good Morning America" when it airs three hours ahead of the West Coast version. Or they can tap into a network feed, watching the anchorman sip coffee or adjust his tie moments before the official broadcast airs.
"My favorite channel is NASA when the shuttle is up," said Chula Vista dish retailer Mike Turchen. "There's total coverage. They're on all the time and they show the experiments--when they're not secret."
Although some cable networks have announced that they plan to scramble their signals--the Home Box Office channel has spent $10 million on an elaborate system for "encrypting" its signal--satellite dish retailers say they're not concerned yet. For now, "we'll just switch to another channel," Dudley said.
The first satellite dishes were set up in rural areas, in the mountain or plains states--areas not reached by network or cable television. "In the beginning, people didn't care how the dishes looked. You could put them by a barn," Hewitt noted.
As the prices dropped sharply--from $10,000 in 1980 for a 10-foot dish to about $2,500 today (and under $1,000 for a six-foot disc antenna)--more were installed in suburban areas. As their popularity grew, there was increasing concern about their appearance.
In addition to the basic white parabolic dish, manufacturers began making see-through steel dishes of mesh, dishes painted green or brown to blend with the landscape and--lately--even "designer dishes," colorfully painted with forest scenes or fish.
For all the creativity, a lot of people still think that satellite dishes are ugly and out-of-place. In Pacific Beach last fall, residents on Wilbur Street complained to the Town Council about an 8-foot dish atop a garage that blocked their view of both the ocean and Mission Bay.
"It's a real eyesore," said Stephanie Popek. "It's like this big thing from outer space sitting on this guy's garage." But neighbors can't make the owner take it down or even sue him, Popek said. "He hasn't broken any law."
But on Thursday, the San Diego Planning Commission will consider a proposed ordinance requiring new dish owners to take out a permit before they install a dish. The ordinance specifies that a dish be screened with plantings, latticework or earth berms; if it's roof-mounted, it should be recessed into the roof.
Junior planner Sherry Zumwalt has sent notices about the hearing to about 60 county businesses that have something to do with satellite dish sales. Members of the recently organized San Diego Satellite Dealers Assn. are expected to attend the meeting in force.
"Everybody's looking to San Diego" to set the example for regulation in the county, Dudley said.
Planners in other cities agreed. La Mesa began a permit system for satellite dishes a year and a half ago but may consider additional requirements, depending on what San Diego does, said assistant planner Georgia Sparkman.
Poway and Chula Vista officials are also watching with interest. Three weeks ago, Chula Vista adopted a 90-day moratorium on satellite dish installations and will draft a new ordinance soon concerning both aesthetics and safety, City Atty. Thomas Harron said.
Until now, Chula Vista had not required permits for the dishes. But as more and more were installed, there were growing complaints. The city needed a new regulation, Harron said, adding that "when the new technology comes along, you don't always have it covered."
El Cajon planning director Griffin agreed. El Cajon had required that dish installers get permits. But too many businessmen simply hoisted the dishes atop their stores and never bothered with permits, so six months ago the city imposed a moratorium on all satellite antenna installations.
"We needed to do something," he said. "We weren't getting any cooperation."
But if the installers had come in for permits, it would have been worse, Griffin said. "Our planning commission agendas would be full of nothing but satellite antenna requests."
Dish retailers and manufacturers are uncomfortable with--even hostile to--the new interest in regulation.
If the restrictions imposed by San Diego, El Cajon and other cities are unduly strict, they say, they'll fight--either in court or by just simply continuing to install the dishes as they have been.
"If it's too onerous, people will ignore the thing and deal without it," Dudley warned.
Besides, Dudley said, cities like El Cajon should be careful that any new regulations don't unfairly single out satellite dishes. "They're saying that a man trying to sell an antenna can't put it out on a street like Broadway, where there's a 25-foot dog on a pole and a 35-foot-high naked lady," Dudley said. "They're saying that a circular parabolic antenna is somehow defaming the neighborhood?"