SATELLITE-RELAY DISHES CATCH NEIGHBORS' IRE.
Dave McGhee settled down to build his dream home in a remote Ventura County canyon near a space-age communications station with massive satellite dishes.
The satellite dishes dwarf McGhee's Victorian-style home. Less than 100 feet from his house, a forest of upturned satellite dishes looms over the row of small eucalyptus trees he planted at the property line.
Although the space-age station was there long before his family moved to the area seven years ago, he and his neighbors are complaining because the giant antennae have multiplied.
The homeowners say that, even though it was there first, the communications center has become incompatible with the tranquil enclave.
"It just gets worse and worse," McGhee said. "The value of the property has diminished tremendously. Even if I wanted to sell it, I don't think I could find a buyer."
In an unlikely battle pitting a wealthy gated community against one of the nation's communication giants, McGhee and his neighbors in Solano Verde Ranches want to uproot the $26 million GE Americom Earth Station. Neighbors have united to prevent the station from renewing its permit with Ventura County and have vowed to take the fight into the courts if necessary.
The estate owners insist the satellite station should be forced to a more remote location. They fear that it poses a health threat and complain that the huge antenna complex has grown out of sync with the gated neighborhood of million-dollar mansions, horse paddocks and private golf links.
"It's a massive, defense-oriented, spook-type facility," said Roy Jeppson, president of the Solano Verde Homeowners Association. "This thing is monstrous. And here it is in our residential area, this quiet little valley."
GE Americom maintains it has every right to stay where it has operated more than 20 years, starting long before the homeowners moved in to carve out estates on 20-acre lots.
"On one level, the concerns about health are totally invalid," said Phil Otero, vice president and general counsel of GE Americom. "On the other, we can understand they might not want (the) Earth Station there. But we were there first, and they chose to locate there."
Tucked into the side of South Mountain five miles west of Moorpark, the GE Earth Station forms a key link in the nation's entertainment and governmental communication network.
The station beams signals overhead for every major television network, the U.S. military and even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space shuttle.
RCA Global Communications came to the then-uninhabited canyon more than two decades ago for a site free from radio interference and neighbors. The county awarded the station its first permit in 1974 to erect three 30-foot dish antennae, a 300-foot microwave tower and a 7,000-square-foot control building on what was then 41 acres of scrubby grazing land.
In the next two decades, the county modified the permit several times as the station added more and larger satellite dishes and buildings. Several years ago, GE Americom, based in Princeton, N.J., took over the operation.
Today the GE Earth Station boasts an 11,000-square-foot building, a 300-foot microwave tower and 18 satellite dishes, including some as large as 70 feet in diameter. About 18 employees work in shifts to staff the station 24 hours a day, passing through the gated community as they come and go.
One of two such sites in the United States, the station relays signals to the GE fleet of 13 satellites and to satellites owned by other companies. It serves all the major radio and television networks, including ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, and more than 11,000 cable systems spanning every state in the nation.
The station links communications for the Navy, Army and Air Force. Among its customers are the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and even the White House.
As the station expanded, Solano Verde Ranches sprang up just down the canyon. First approved for construction in 1980, the neighborhood has grown to 19 homes on 20-acre lots - the nearest less than 100 feet from the antennae.
Locked behind a large electric gate northwest of Bradley Road, Solano Verde Ranches became an exclusive enclave with its own water system and roads. Mansions atop forbidding hills command sweeping views of the valleys below. Estates in tranquil canyons overlook horse corrals, acres of lemon trees and long driveways. There is even a private three-hole golf course by one home.
On a recent morning, Jeppson glided his car along the private road and turned the last corner of the canyon. Suddenly lighthouse-size satellite dishes loomed in the windshield like space-age Cyclopses from a science-fiction movie.
"We bring friends up, and they have two reactions," Jeppson said. "Either their mouths drop open, or they break out in hysterical laughter."
Howard Gold, an attorney who lives down the canyon from the GE Earth Station, said he and his neighbors are concerned about the communication station's growth.
"When most of us moved in, there were just a couple of dishes," said Gold. "Suddenly it's exploded out there. They've got 60-foot dishes. It's like the 'Twilight Zone.' You walk out there and freak."
Neighbors fear harmful health effects from electromagnetic rays emitted by the antennae. They say one neighbor has brain cancer although no one can prove any definite link with the station.
"I've got a 1-year-old baby, and I'm very concerned," said Gold. "They've told us in the past there's no danger. Then I asked the probing question: If there's no danger, why are there no windows in your building? I haven't gotten an answer."
Meanwhile, GE Americom insists that the station poses absolutely no danger to neighbors. A consultant's report commissioned by the company concluded that power levels fell within safety ranges of the Federal Communications Commission for exposure to radiation.
Moreover, GE Americom attorneys say Ventura County planners have no right now to declare the station a nuisance to the neighborhood after ruling just the opposite in a series of permit modifications.
"We are as compatible now as we were when we built it," said Otero. "There's really nothing new. The county has looked at this many times and concluded the facility is compatible. The people built their houses there knowing that was the situation."
GE Americom has dismissed neighbors' suggestion to move the station, saying it would take three years and cost $28 million.
"It's extremely impractical," said Otero. "We first of all would have to duplicate the facility. You can't just pick it up and move it."
The conditional-use permit for the station expired about one year ago, and GE Americom previously applied for a 10-year extension. The Solano Verde Homeowners Association hired an attorney to fight the extension, and the three closest neighbors also have retained their own lawyer.
County planners have put the permit renewal on hold pending the outcome of negotiations between the two sides. Meanwhile, the station has been allowed to continue operating.
"We're just letting it slide," said Jeff Walker, manager of the land-use permits section of the Ventura County Planning Division. "They don't want us to make any determination until such time as they come to an agreement or come to impasse."
For a year, lawyers for the homeowners and GE Americom have negotiated without reaching an agreement. Neighbors have suggested that GE Americom offer a cash settlement or buy homes closest to the station, Jeppson said, but talks have reached impasse, and the residents will ask the county to resume the planning process so they can move the fight into public hearings.
In the meantime, the two sides eye each other warily over the fence.
Robert LeBaron built his home on a hilltop commanding sweeping views of the canyons below. But as he walks down his steep driveway, he comes to a view of the station below.
"It's right under my nose," he said. "We came out here to get away from everything, and these guys are expanding with traffic and noise. The health issue is probably the biggest thing, and they won't tell us anything."
Turning his gaze upward, he gestured at the satellite dishes atop the canyon walls.
"I don't think they're done," LeBaron said. "I think they're going to add them to all these mountains."
Photo (Color only in Conejo and Simi editions) GE Americom Earth Station satellite dishes sprout next to Dave McGhee's Victorian-style home in Somis. Andy Holzman/Special to the Daily News
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Feb 12, 1996|
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