Satellite situation: City targeted dishes, dish owners fire back

onarch-cherryave-dish0910Front yard clutter? City zoning inspectors ordered this Cherry Avenue resident to relocate the satellite dish.

Satellite dish in my yard
Tell me more, tell me more
Who's the king of your satellite castle?

We may not know exactly what Dave Matthews meant in his song "Satellite," but last month Cherry Avenue resident Susan Blake had no doubts about what a letter she received from the city had to say about the dish in her yard: relocate it within a month–- or face legal action with fines up to $5,000.

After losing her job with a construction company, Blake was looking for ways to save money, and switching from cable to satellite television was one of them.

“I was paying $62 per month for Comcast, but now I’m paying $27 per month for DirecTV,” says Blake. “That savings practically pays my electric bill.” Of course, those $27 offers are only good for the first year, but with things so tight for folks like Blake, many people are switching over.

However, that small piece of mind was shaken by the letter she received from city zoning inspector Craig Fabio, which gave her 30-days to relocate the dish, which is mounted on a five-foot pole in her front yard, or face a first-time fine of $100, and $250 for every day thereafter (up to $5,000) if she didn't comply.

According to Neighborhood Development chief Jim Tolbert, satellite dishes like Blake’s fall under the definition of “accessory buildings or structures,” which are prohibited in front yards under the current zoning ordinance.

The ordinance, says Tolbert, was designed to prevent people from “cluttering up their front yards,” and explained that satellite dishes are considered accessory structures when they are attached to the ground.

Tolbert says the ordinance is typically enforced only a few times a year, but when inspector Fabio received some recent complaints about the front yard saucers, this time, to be fair, at least 30 letters were sent out.

“But what about lamp posts, basketball courts, and lawn sculptures?” Blake asks. “Don’t they clutter yards?”

Indeed, as the Hook observed, Blake’s dish is the only thing in her front yard, and it’s been positioned off to the side next to a row of shrubbery. On a recent tour of the neighborhood, we noticed properties that had a lawn ornaments, including a ceramic deer and a miniature windmill–- not to mention one tee-pee-like structure in a front yard and a steel I-beam sculpted into the shape of cats.

According to DirecTV spokesperson Robert Mercer, if the city believes that something the size of a satellite dish is prohibited under the ordinance, then “it would appear that the city is selectively targeting satellite TV homes.” He encouraged Charlottesville DirecTV customers to protest the enforcement.

What’s more, the ordinance may also violate the FCC’s Telecommunications Act of 1996, says Blake, which prohibits restrictions that prevent dish users from getting “an acceptable quality signal” or imposes “an unreasonable expense or delay” in getting service.

Indeed, according to an FCC spokesperson, the “over the air reception device rule” preempts local zoning ordinances “unless there is a legitimate safety or historic preservation basis” for the restriction.” There’s an exception made for ordinances specifically requiring that dishes not be visible from the street, but only if their enforcement doesn’t degrade the signal or cost the property owner money.

Blake says that technicians told her the dish needed to face southwest, toward the back of her house, and that there needed to be an unobstructed line-of-sight to the sky. Since there are several tall trees in her backyard, close to the house, they concluded that dish needed to be placed in the front yard.

“I would love to have the thing in my backyard,” says Blake, “but I get no signal back there. That’s true of most houses on this side of Cherry Avenue.”

The Hook counted six dishes in that section of Cherry Avenue–- modest properties that do not have big yards– all facing southwest. On Blake’s side of the street, all the houses have tall trees behind them. On the other side of the street, the houses themselves would most likely block the signal if the dishes were in the backyard.

However, it appears this story will have a happy ending for Blake.

When initially contacted by a reporter, Tolbert said that the City ordinance would prevail as long as a home had an adequate alternative site. But after fielding complaints and mulling the situation for a few days, he now says the City had an “ah-ha” moment.

“We’re going to pull back and revisit the ordinance,” says Tolbert, assuring dish owners like Blake that enforcement can wait.

That’s a big relief to Blake, who worried she was going to have to pay to have her dish moved, or lose her service entirely. She also hopes the city will inform those who received the letters in a timely fashion, as her deadline for removing her dish was March 4.

“I’m surprised, but not surprised,” says Blake. “They really opened up a can of worms with this one.”


Yet another ploy for "revenue enhancement" by a local government?

While on this subject of cable vs satellite, I would like to know why Directv is having such a hard time providing "local channels" to Charlottesville. Dish Network has had "local channels" for Charlottesville subscribers for a long time.

Whenever I question Directv about this, they act as if they would really enjoy answering the question. But they simply trail off with the response that they are adding more local channels each year, to check back later and see if our local channels have been added.

What a surprise, commie Napoleons getting a little bit of power and it going straight to their heads. And naturally the dozens of nettling busybodies in the city with nothing better to do than complaining about a five foot dish on someone else's property. Naggers and tyrants, the Charlottesville troublemaking combo.

A co-worker had the same thing happen to him. Except, the letter went to his rental management company. They waited until the appeal period was up and just came and cut it down. The co-worker ended up actually speaking to the city attorney. He now has his dish back.

Think of all the creative ways to disguise this --rose arbor, climbing vines--I noticed this summer, along the highway in Mass., that huge electric poles are being built to look like trees, and talking about yard there's a story.

Bud, I sure agree with you on "Art in Place"
Who the heck ever decided this was a good thing, for the city.
I drive by that crap every day. Its an abortion on the landscape.

What about that crap in all the medians called Art In Place? That looks like clutter to me.

Mr. Tolbert deserves praise for agreeing to reexamine this issue before taking any further action.

This is how government is supposed top work.

Thank you

I'm sure this ordinance dates back to when dishes were those 6-10 foot monstrosities, with or without wolf/eagle/american flag, etc murals painted on the inside surface

What about that yokel on Park Street with the "R.I.P. Democracy" tombstone in his yard? Talk about an eyesore! Issue that freak a citation.

Time to check all City employees residences who actually live in City. How about the City buildings for violations.............

Decorate it for Christmas

The telecommunications act of 1996 has had tougher sledding than universal suffrage did in the South before WW2.
Localities continue to hinder its intent with regard to cell towers and they do this big time. The FCC need to be more aggressive with threatening communities which continue to obstruct access to transmissions through their parochial ordinances. Albemarle County needs a federal haircut over their obstruction of cell antenna placement. It goes without saying that localities cannot impede peoples' rights with regard to receiving antennas.

Its this sort of thing that makes people despise government( not that our city hall lot doesn't deserve it). I agree about Art in Place-what trash and worst of all it gets tax dollars.
Its one thing to object to trash, rusted out cars and other junk that may degrade neighbors property values, but a satellite dish or a shed for garden tools-come on. Which would you rather gave next door, a satellite dish in the front yard, or piles of rusting appliances, brokedown furniture, etc in the back?
I just hope for their sake that City Council and the rest of them don't try something like that on someone like that guy down in Austin!

Amen for opening up a can of worms!! Want to unclutter yards in C'ville??? No more flower beds or whirly gigs or little wells or any kind of ornament in YOUR front yard. I can understand if the dish was the old 10' one...but really. This is me, glad I don't live in C'ville anymore!

"But they simply trail off with the response that they are adding more local channels each year, to check back later and see if our local channels have been added."

They probably just don't want to pay exorbitant fees for what amounts to public access programming.

Screw the cable and get an over the air antenna. You get less channel but that means watching less tv. Go for a walk or read a book, I find myself doing so much more without the cable. And the Hdtv is better than signal.

Wanting to demolish the McIntire wading pool over a simple and cheap drain upgrade should explain what's going on in Charlottesville. There's somebody sitting around City Hall with way too much time on their hands. :)

Ain't that the truth! There's numerous people paying more real estate tax per month than the last mortgage payment was on their homes. You never own a home, who would ever have believed taxes would be more per month than the payments you used to make?

What is wrong with all you people? C-Ville is the perfect place. Everything else pales in comparison. Long live C-Ville...the God of Cities.

This stunt never should have made it past the City Attorney's Office. Or do city employees like Tolbert even consult them for legal advice any longer?

Sometimes I think I am in the land of Looney-Tunes. What is happening to Charlottesville?

You don't own your land, you rent it from the city/town/county. :(

Market Street, there's no way I would give up my 300+ channels. It's worse than asking a person to give up their cell phones and computers. :)

And, Directv has HDtv now on many channels already, with more being added each day.

While receiving local channels would be a nice addition to Directv, it hasn't really presented a problem for me yet. I have a seperate 42" LCD HDTV set off in another corner of the room I can flip on for the local news whenever I desire.

Harry, I learned long ago that there's double standards for city employees and city residents. A city cop used to park in a "2 hour parking" zone all day long, every day. The meter maids ignored ticketing his truck because they knew who it belonged to. The residents who also worked downtown had to move their cars around every two hours to avoid getting tickets.

After having this little cop play a mind game with me one day, I got a meter maid supervisor to meet at the cop's truck one day. I told him I was personally calling the chief every time I saw it parked in the same 2 hour zone every day all day long. I broke up that little freebie he was getting because he had a badge and thought the parking laws didn't apply to him.

as long as that guy on shamrock has that friggin' bamboo teepee in his front yard, the city can't say squat about "clutter" in everyone else's yard. have you seen that thing? it's ridiculous!

This happened to me. I live on Prospect Ave. I complained all the way up to the city attorney's office. I am not surprised to see that this is more widespread. Most people are not familiar with the law and are willing to just pay the fine to take the dish down.