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Tower Failure

Community groups and broadcasters widen their battle over proposed tower construction.

For the most part, the digital TV revolution is not being televised in Denver -- and with a series of disputes over broadcasting towers in varying states of gridlock, this situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Nevertheless, the clock continues to tick. Several years ago, the Federal Communications Commission directed American TV stations to switch their signals from analog to digital -- also known as HDTV, or high-definition TV -- by 2006; in theory, this change will produce better picture quality for consumers who own the proper equipment even as it gives the FCC a chance to auction off vacated portions of the telecommunications spectrum to phone companies, Internet endeavors and the like. As part of this mandate, Denver outlets were ordered to be HDTV-ready by November 1999.

Over two years later, the city is not even close to completing this task. Channel 31 has a digital antenna on Lookout Mountain that will begin broadcasting an HDTV network feed with this year's Super Bowl, but several other stations are relying on stopgaps: Channel 7 has a low-power digital antenna on its building, and channels 4 and 6 are using similar devices mounted on downtown's Republic Plaza. As a result, says Channel 6 president and general manager James Morgese, Denver is the only one of the top fifty U.S. markets not on board the digital express.

Why not? The biggest factor is the failure of a pitch by the Lake Cedar Group, a consortium of area broadcasters that includes channels 4, 6, 7, 9 and 20, to build a digital "supertower" in a jam-packed nest of antennas on Lookout Mountain, west of Denver. Jefferson County commissioners snubbed the concept after local residents raised concerns about health, safety, lifestyle and visual-impact issues ("Something in the Air," April 6, 2000).

"It was a long fight," says Deb Carney, attorney for Canyon Area Residents for the Environment, or CARE, a collective of Lookout Mountain-area inhabitants that led the protests. "And it's not over yet."

She's right. The Lake Cedar Group responded to the commisioners' thumbs-down by filing a suit in Jefferson County Court to reverse the edict and by petitioning the FCC to overrule Jeffco in what could become a precedent-setting showdown between the federal government and a local municipality. But Lake Cedar withdrew its suit last year in the face of almost certain defeat, and while the complaint to the FCC is still pending (Carney calls it "the sword hanging over the commissioners' heads"), Fred Niehaus, a consultant and spokesman for the group, says the focus now is on a new tower proposition to be unveiled sometime this spring.

"I think we can bring together a reasonable, rational approach," Niehaus says. "It won't be all things to all people, including the stations, but it has the potential to take steps forward in every area."

Lake Cedar's tower scheme is hardly the only one on this track. Three more are scheduled for presentation to Jeffco officials in the coming months, setting up scraps at a trio of broadcasting sites: Lookout Mountain; Eldorado Mountain, a scenic mecca a few miles south of Boulder; and Mount Morrison, near Red Rocks. That leaves Squaw Mountain, a Clear Creek County property that neighborhood groups tout as safe but many broadcasters aren't sold on, as the only significant antenna farm in the area that's not about to become major combat zone.

Regarding Lookout Mountain, Clear Channel is readying an application to replace a tower that broadcasts KDFM, popularly referred to as KISS-FM, in an attempt to return the station to full power; right now, KISS is broadcasting at only 38 percent of its permitted wattage in order to prevent the creation of so-called hot spots -- areas on the ground where radio-frequency emissions are over FCC limits. Meanwhile, Florida-based Pinnacle Towers Inc. is set to appear before the county planning commission on February 6 with an altered version of a plan to erect towers on Eldorado Mountain that the same commission rebuffed in November. Finally, on March 13, Public Interest Communications (PIC), an alliance featuring Channel 6, Colorado Public Radio and KUVO, is tentatively slated to offer tower initiatives for Mount Morrison. Among PIC's suggestions is the installation of a horizontal tower -- a strange-looking, jungle-gym-like contraption that doesn't jut into the sky, but runs along the ground in a manner that's supposed to be tougher to see from a distance than its vertical cousins.

"We believe we've discovered a way to make the structure less visible by placing it on its side," notes Channel 6's Morgese. "It's a surprise to me that it would work, but all the engineers I've talked to have said it will."

No one will know for certain if assorted community groups get their way -- and thus far, they have. CARE opposes the placement of any new towers or antennas on either Lookout Mountain or Mount Morrison, and its allies in the cause include the Genessee Foundation, which is trying to organize a boycott of PIC stations, and the Friends of Red Rocks, a gaggle of dedicated music lovers who were instrumental in preventing radical changes to Red Rocks Amphitheater ("Red Alert," September 16, 1999). At the same time, the thought of more towers on Eldorado Mountain -- home to the antenna of just one commercial station, KBCO -- has fired up a slew of savvy neighborhood factions such as the Coal Creek Canyon Homeowners Association.

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