Fearing that the proliferation of satellite dish antennas could cause visual blight in their communities, two Westside cities are considering ordinances that would limit the size and location of the space-age television receivers.
The fiberglass or wire dish receivers, which measure 4 to 12 feet in diameter and cost from about $1,000 to more than $4,000, have become a common sight around the Westside. They have gained popularity with homeowners because they improve television reception and provide a wider range of programming.
But planners in Beverly Hills and Culver City are considering ordinances that they say would prevent the dishes from being installed where they are deemed aesthetically offensive.
"If you are trying to find out what we are concerned with," said Culver City planning Commissioner Charles Blum, "go over to Los Angeles across the street from MGM (studios). There are about nine dish antennas and one of them is as big as a house . . . . It looks like an antenna farm." Blum was referring to homes on Washington Boulevard between Overland and Madison avenues.
"People may find these things facing into their homes or hovering over it offensive," Blum said.
Laws May Be Too Restrictive
Representatives of the dish antenna industry said, however, that the new ordinances may be too restrictive, abridging First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and the press.
Figures are not available on the number of satellite dishes, or "earth stations," in the Los Angeles area. But there are at least 1 million in the country, compared with fewer than 100 six years ago, according to the Society for Private and Commercial Earth Stations. The Alexandria, Va.-based lobbying group represents 1,100 manufacturers, distributors and dealers of satellite dishes.
Dishes were once used mostly in rural areas that lacked cable television service, according to a spokesman for the society. But they are becoming more attractive in cities, particularly as the price continues to drop. (A 10-foot dish that cost $10,000 five years ago is only $2,500 today.)
With the use of a dish, consumers can receive more than 100 stations with better reception than cable, and monitor up to 12 domestic video satellites rotating around the Earth, which provide owners with access to blacked-out sports events, direct broadcasts from NASA space shuttle flights, even transmissions from foreign countries.
Dozens of cities across the nation have passed laws to control the size and placement of the dishes. Officials in Beverly Hills and Culver City said they must act before unsightly satellite dishes cover roofs all over their cities. They said most of the earth stations have been installed illegally, without required building permits.
The Beverly Hills City Council is expected to consider an ordinance March 19 that would:
- Require most residential dishes to be mounted on the ground, rather than on rooftops.
- Limit the height of a dish to that of surrounding hedges and fences, or about seven feet.
- Prohibit dishes in front yards, and require screens to cover at least 75% of the dish from view.
- Prohibit dishes larger than 12 feet in diameter.
- Permit roof installation in commercial zones and in residential neighborhoods where residents can prove that they cannot get reception from a ground-mounted dish.
Culver City has banned all dish installations until it can revise an ordinance that the city passed in September that prohibits roof-mounted dishes. The city would also like to set a maximum size and require screening to be placed around the dishes, according to city planner Jay Cunningham.
Rooftop dishes might be allowed in business districts, Cunningham said. The planning commission is expected to consider the issue in May.
Both cities will continue to require building permits for installation of dishes.
Industry representatives said the height limit proposed in Beverly Hills might force excavations that could add up to $3,000 to the cost of installation.
'Doesn't Make Sense'
"Why is it that they plan to allow something seven feet (the hedge and fence height) when they are speaking of a dish that is 12 feet?" asked Dennis Bellavia, president of Satellite Television Technology in Westwood. "It just doesn't make sense. You would have to spend well over $1,000 to set it into the ground" so it would not be seen over the fence, he said.
Bellavia said the regulations would hurt business. "Without a doubt people are going to say, 'We don't want to do it if we have to pay more to have it installed,' " he said.
Bellavia said he did not blame city officials for considering an ordinance, "because some of the (dishes) are installed in such a hideous way." But he said that his company had been concerned with aesthetics all along and would be unjustly hurt by a stringent height limit.
Chuck Hewitt, a spokesman for the Society for Private and Commercial Earth Stations, said limiting satellite dish height to that of fences "would de facto eliminate the use of most earth stations." Hewitt said the society would consider challenging such an ordinance in court on grounds that it violates the First Amendment.
"When you take away access to communication you really have to look at what is happening," Hewitt said. "Freedom of speech is one thing and having access to the information is another."
Because most cities receive franchise fees from cable television companies, they also have an economic stake in preventing consumers from dropping cable to buy earth stations, Hewitt said. "It's a conflict of interest," he said.
President Reagan in October signed a bill that protects the right of consumers to own earth stations and receive all signals on the air.
But representatives of pay television companies consider it piracy to receive their signals without payment. Home Box Office Inc. plans to scramble its signal to prevent reception by non-subscribers. Dish owners will be able to pay a fee for de-scrambling equipment. Other pay television services are also thinking of scrambling their signals.
Aesthetic concerns may also lead Santa Monica to place controls on satellite dishes when the city rewrites its zoning laws, a city spokesman said.
But industry officials view such concerns as a roadblock in the path of progress.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Hewitt said. "If zoning boards had made these kinds of rules when telephones were first being installed there might not be telephones in this country."