As the 2007 San Diego wildfires raged, Howard White cooped himself up in his La Jolla home and, with the help of the 85-foot metal antenna in his front yard, directed a corps of local ham radio operators who canvassed East and North County, receivers in hand.
Requests came in for information on closed routes, stranded equipment and people stuck in their homes. White transmitted the requests to ham volunteers stationed at the Salvation Army, Red Cross and the County’s Office of Emergency Services, who passed the information onto responders. “That antenna,” White said of the structure he built in 2005, “saved lives.”
When he erected it, that antenna also riled residents of White’s picturesque hillside neighborhood, where houses have sweeping ocean views. They appealed to the city to do something about the wiry antenna, which is 25 feet tall when not in use and 85 feet when it is. Since then, the city has been drafting San Diego’s first height restrictions on amateur radio antennas.
The amendments to the city’s development code would limit amateur radio antennas to being 35 percent above a building’s height and no taller than 70 feet. In coastal neighborhoods like La Jolla, to protect scenic views, they would be limited to 30 feet. The ordinance would not immediately target existing structures.
White and thousands of self-described “hams” across the city say the restrictions, which will come before the city’s planning commission in February or March and the City Council later, would endanger their ability to communicate effectively. The ordinance, they argue, would also violate state and federal laws that recognize ham radio’s role in emergency response and require cities to adequately accommodate ham communication.
But the city says it is pursuing the ordinance to balance the needs of ham operators licensed by the Federal Communications Commission with the concerns of residents who oppose the sometimes imposing structures in their neighborhoods.
“The city contains areas of special character where a proposed antenna has the potential for negative impacts,” Lynda Pfeifer, a spokeswoman for the city’s Development Services Department, said in an e-mail.
But the height restrictions, ham operators said, ignore the physics behind amateur radio antennas, which become more effective the higher they reach. With his 85-foot antenna, for example, White was able to coordinate rescues for responders in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The key to ham’s success when all else fails, White said, is its reach and its scattered network of antennas across the world.
“We need the height to have a great view for local communications,” said Gordon Schlesinger, a local ham who has a 45-foot antenna in the backyard of his College Area home. “The restrictions would make it impossible for us to contact other stations at greater distance in the county because the antennas would be generally out of sight.”
Ham radio antennas have been the object of litigation nationwide for decades. The cases often pit residents who think the antennas are eyesores against radio operators who argue that federal and state law comes down on their side.
Federal law has long protected amateur non-commercial radio communication because hams provide the country with a trained community of radio operators during times of crisis. In 2003, the California legislature passed a law requiring cities to reasonably accommodate amateur radio.
The city of San Diego hasn’t restricted antenna heights previously, recognizing the state and federal laws would preempt a local ordinance. The proposed height amendments would try to work around the federal and state laws by requiring a special permit process for new antennas that exceeded the height limits — instead of banning them outright. If the City Council adopts the new rules, new antennas would need to be presented to a community planning group and approved by city staff before they could be erected in certain neighborhoods.
The permitting process, hams said, will be costly and deter future radio operators from taking up the task of emergency response that has proved critical in earlier emergencies.
Many hams are technology gurus or trained engineers — some, like White, hold doctorates — who find glee in delving into the formulas of radio physics. Day-to-day, they call in traffic accidents they encounter while driving or chat with other hams. But when emergencies strike, they emerge from relative obscurity and descend on disaster zones with expert speed.
When the 2003 Cedar Fire overwhelmed local cell phone networks and caused failure of firefighter and other first responders’ radio signals, ham operators were among the few who remained online. They again contributed in 2007.
“They were here and they were mainly working on in-county communications, finding shelter locations and other facility tasks,” said Yvette Urrea Moe, a spokeswoman for the county’s Office of Emergency Services, which coordinated fire response.
In recent years, emergency responders, including the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, have incorporated amateur radio operators into their community emergency response plans.
The San Diego DX Club, one of the county’s largest organizations of amateur radio operators, is gearing up to fight the ordinance, raising money for potential litigation from the more than 8,000 hams countywide, and the more than 610,000 across the nation.
“The city, it seems, wants to go beyond its citizens’ interests to foist under the guise of simple aesthetics something that could end up costing us so much,” said Felix Tinkov, the group’s attorney.