Satellite situation: City targeted dishes, dish owners fire back
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.”