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Golden Showers

A city's plans rain on local TV powerhouses.

You've seen them: slick, highly produced commercials about the oft-delayed construction of a new, 730-foot digital tower on Lookout Mountain. The spots declare that viewers in the Denver metro area are being denied free, over-the-air HDTV by recalcitrant residents who have refused every compromise offered to them by the eminently reasonable representatives of the Lake Cedar Group, which represents channels 4, 7, 9 and 20.

Who is being demonized by these advertisements? According to Golden City Manager Mike Bestor, most of his 17,000 or so constituents. "The broadcast media's using their resources extensively to try to paint us and the citizens who are standing up to them as the bad guys," he says. "They're telling everyone, 'A handful of people wants to keep y'all from watching Broncos games.'"

Nevertheless, Golden has joined Canyon Area Residents for the Environment (CARE), a coalition of Lookout Mountain homeowners, as a leading opponent of the tower proposal and is on the cusp of using the controversial power of eminent domain in an attempt to stop the project once and for all. In late March, Bestor says, Golden made the Lake Cedar Group what he describes as a "final offer" of $1.7 million to purchase the land for open space; this total, a modest increase over a previous bid, is based on a Golden-solicited appraisal of the parcel's value. "They're expected to respond" within days, Bestor reveals, "or if they don't, we'll assume it's a refusal. And then our attorneys will start the process, and we'll go to court to acquire it."

To this promise/threat, former Channel 4 vice president and general manager Marv Rockford, who now serves as Lake Cedar's spokesman, reacts with barely disguised frustration. He stresses that the federal government has ordered a shift from the current analog approach to digital broadcasting, which allows more (and higher-quality) channels in the available bandwidth, and has encouraged broadcasters to provide both kinds of signals for several years in advance of the February 17, 2009, cutoff for analog. "But because of the objection of a small group of people," Rockford goes on, "Denver is the only major city in this country that is not providing a transition period. That means more than three million people in the Denver audience do not have the benefit of a congressionally mandated change to digital broadcasting."

Each side of the tower debate has won skirmishes during this long-running war, but the victories have been short-lived. Jefferson County commissioners rejected building the tower in 1999, only to approve it in 2003. CARE countered the second ruling by filing a lawsuit in Jefferson County District Court. Judge R. Brooke Jackson eventually shipped the case back to the commissioners because of questions about multiple-tower failure -- the chance that the new structure could topple into another tower in Lookout Mountain's sprawling antenna farm, causing one or both to send debris cascading onto nearby homes.

Rockford considers the likelihood of such a catastrophe infinitesimal, especially since the tower closest to the new one would be taken down once its replacement went live. He notes that broadcasters have put $1 million in escrow to remove four existing towers -- and multiple facilities associated with them -- that would become obsolete following the installation of the digital tower and a single building that would be recessed into the hillside to improve aesthetics. Officials could use the fund if Lake Cedar took more than a year to get rid of all the extras.

Even so, the potential risk of a domino effect caused two of three Jeffco commissioners to turn thumbs down on the tower in September 2005, thereby throwing the matter back to Judge Jackson, who's expected to rule on a zoning resolution governing the site within months.

There's an undeniable irony connected to the amount of energy being spent squabbling about fall ratios. After all, the anti-tower forces seem to be at least as concerned, if not more so, about other matters. CARE, which represents about 9,000 folks in the Lookout Mountain area, continues to talk about possible health dangers associated with radio-frequency emissions, or RF, that are inexorably linked to broadcasting. A 1999 Colorado Department of Health and Environment study identified higher cancer rates in some areas around the antenna farm, but subsequent evidence of a connection between radiation and cancer isn't seen as indisputable. "The health issue has been put to bed as far as the scientific community is concerned," Rockford asserts. He terms any suggestion to the contrary "fear-mongering."

Attorney Deb Carney, CARE's spokeswoman, couldn't disagree more, and she insists that "we still care very much about health and about interference" related to broadcasting. (Folks on Lookout Mountain have reported a slew of bizarre side effects from their proximity to the antennas: electric wheelchairs spinning out of control, radio squawks beaming from VCRs, and even the distortion of their local TV signals from RF overload.) However, Carney concedes, "The judge can't look at those things. We have to go where the court has taken the case."

Golden, meanwhile, is big on what Bestor refers to as "preserving the mountain backdrop." In his view, the tower "would be a huge scar" on the foothills that wouldn't be mitigated by Lake Cedar's pledge to eliminate some pre-existing towers and buildings. Such development also flies in the face of recommendations from the Golden Historic Preservation Board, which listed the site as deserving protection because it was part of a park during the late 1800s and early 1900s -- a move Rockford disparaged as a public-relations tactic in a March letter to the Denver Post.

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