Ask Dr. SETI ®
by H. Paul Shuch, Executive Director
Those SETIzens who happen to be licensed radio amateurs (and that includes many of our Project Argus participants) have likely dealt with curious neighbors' questions about our antennas. Although most of us tend to consider a large dish antenna in our gardens to be a thing of beauty, it should come as no surprise that many of our neighbors do not. How, then, do we deal with our neighbors' aesthetic concerns, without jeapordizing our activities?
The question of community aesthetic standards raised its head when recently I began construction of the Very Small Array (VSA), an eight-dish Array2k prototype, in the backyard of my semi-rural Pennsylvania home. No sooner had surveyors set up their theodolites on my property, than my neighbors protested the whole project to my local Township Board of Supervisors. The resulting interchange was educational for my neighbors, my township, and me.
We radio amateurs in the United States enjoy a degree of legal protection which our counterparts in other countries well may envy. As the holder of a US Amateur Radio license, constructing an antenna to be used under the rules of the Amateur Radio Service in the allocated ham bands, my antennas fall under the protection of PRB-1, the FCC's federal pre-emption of local zoning regulation over ham radio antennas. Since the VSA is designed to operate within the 23 cm amateur radio band, for reception tests in connection with our W2ETI moonbounce beacon (clearly a ham radio educational and scientific activity), I invoked PRB-1 to my local Township Supervisors.
In brief, PRB-1 recognizes the value to the community of the Amateur Radio Service, acknowledges the importance of antennas to achieve effective ham radio communications, and prohibits local governments from unrealistically restricting ham antennas. And, to my surprise and delight, the local township Solicitor informed my Supervisors at a local Township meeting that PRB-1 did indeed apply, protecting the VSA from zoning restrictions and local regulation.
If you think that ruling allayed my neighbors' concerns, you overestimate the power of reason. Federal regulations notwithstanding, they argued to our Township Supervisors, they moved onto our scenic hilltop to enjoy the wonders of nature, not the terrors of technology. Since membership on the Township Board is an elected position, whose voice do you suppose carries best, that of one lone ham, or a dozen of his voter/neighbors?
Without belaboring the ensuing legalities, suffice it to say that compromise carried the day. Since an amateur radio telescope points generally 'up', and since moonbounce activities can be conducted when the Moon is relatively high in the sky, it was practical to mount the dishes of the VSA relatively close to the ground, pointing up. This permitted me to plant a ring of trees around the dishes, shielding them from the view of my neighbors. The sad irony is that the cost of the shrubbery ended up exceeding the cost of the sheet metal. But I have to admit that the forty arbor vitae recently planted in my backyard are attractive -- almost as pretty to my eye as the dishes they mask!
The bottom line is that we each can choose between confrontation and conciliation. Our legal rights notwithstanding, as good neighbors it behooves us, and benefits our hobby, to choose the latter.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.
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this page last updated 23 November 2002
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