Bad vibes encircle site of planned radar tower : Doppler unit will help NOAA track storms. The local climate is already inclement due to furious neighboring landowners.


A huge American flag snaps in the wind on a lonesome ridge in southern Arizona, a symbol of resistance by property owners fighting a proposed development.

The battle sounds familiar, but it has a twist: The developer is the federal government, specifically the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The agency is building a 142-foot radar weather tower that area residents complain would be a blot on a beautiful rural mountain range--and a health hazard because of microwave radiation.

What's more, opponents charge the government with barging into their Eden--violating laws by sidestepping zoning and building regulations and otherwise using its significant weight to push the tower project to completion.

Members of the Empire Mountain Coalition, a loose-knit group formed last May to stop the tower, have become so frustrated that they are resorting to what might be called legal sabotage.

They've planted seven eucalyptus trees on private property as close as 40 feet to the proposed site, with the big flag flying from the top of a 60-foot tree-support pole. But they are not stopping there. Now coalition members are erecting a 100-foot wind tower on a ridge above the radar site.

Activist Wayne Powell admits that the idea is to obstruct the tower and render it useless.

"Do they really believe we're going to sit back and let them destroy our property?" he says. "We're building our own tower. They need to know we're serious."

Even worse, opponents say, the weather tower won't work because of obstruction from surrounding mountain ranges.

But the federal government's chief meteorologist in Tucson says that a Doppler tower--dubbed NEXRAD, for next generation radar--can do "magnificent things" for southern Arizona.

"Doppler radar outside L.A. gave scientists a four-hour lead time in predicting flash floods," says Marvin Shogren of the National Weather Service.

He believes that the coalition's health concerns are based on bad information. The tower will be at the crest of the mountain, meaning nobody will be in the direct path of the microwaves.

"I've been living under radar at my job for 20 years, and I feel fine," Shogren says. "It's tragic that a small group is trying to impede a radar tower that will save lives and property."

The real tragedy, says Ron Asta, a real estate consultant hired by the coalition, is that the federal government is doing everything it can to skirt public scrutiny.

To begin with, the government bought 40 acres from a private landowner for a tower that requires fewer than five acres. Asta believes that's because any purchase of fewer than 36 acres would have required the seller to file subdivision plans with Pima County and the state.

In addition, a law passed by Congress in 1988 requires federal agencies to follow local building codes and zoning ordinances "to the fullest extent practical."

"They're making no effort, absolutely zero, to comply with this law," Asta says. "The federal government has been putting private developers through regulatory hell for 20 years, but the rules don't apply to them."

If a private radio or TV station attempted to build the same tower, it would have been subjected to at least four formal public hearings, Asta says.

Two hearings would have been required before getting a use permit, and a third would have been necessary to waive a regulation regarding the proximity of the nearest neighbor.

A private landowner also would need a grading permit before beginning work on the tower road. After months of wrangling, Asta says, he and members of the coalition "shamed" the federal government into applying to Pima County for that permit.

The request was denied the first Friday in January. A few days later, the road work began anyway.

"They told the county's development director to her face that the permit didn't matter, they were going to go ahead without it," Powell says. "The arrogance of the feds here is staggering."

Shogren says the law only required them to consider local construction ordinances, not agree with them, and that the federal government has the final say.

"We did consider them, and the county has said we've broken no laws," he says. "We've been consulting with them all along and they had no problems with any of this until the coalition complained."

It appears now as if the county is backing away from challenging the radar tower, and the project will proceed. The road grading has been completed and Shogren says the radar should be operational by the end of May.

That distresses Powell. He knows of one family near the site so spooked by talk of microwave radiation that they're moving out. Others are ditching plans to build on their land, fearing they'll be unable to profit from it should they decide to sell.

Powell and other coalition members are pinning their hopes on the wind tower--and on the emotional impact of their huge flag, which measures 15 by 20 feet and is visible in Tuscon, 20 miles away.

"The wind tower actually rewards us by giving us electricity, which is something we really need," says Powell, a 45-year-old therapist. "And the flag is a beautiful symbol. As far as we're concerned, Old Glory will continue to wave."

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