Back yard satellite dishes may be the latest in space-age television technology, but Elizabeth K. Mayotte, who happens to live next door to one here, thinks they are eyesores.
Mayotte told the Howard County Council recently that the 17-foot-wide dish that appeared in her neighbor's back yard on Five Fingers Way in October obstructs the view from every window in the back of her Columbia house. The dish not only is an eyesore but also creates an annoying noise when it changes direction, and it is an "attractive nuisance" for children who might be injured playing around it, she said.
"Everyone I've contacted has been sympathetic . . . . However, until now there has been no clear sense of direction in how to deal with this problem," she said.
Howard County is one of several jurisdictions in the region that are considering laws to regulate antenna usage. Some areas want to restrict the size and location of the satellite dishes.
The Howard measure contains no size restrictions, but it calls for screening satellite dishes with mounds of earth, fencing or evergreen trees.
Sales of dish antennas have boomed since Congress passed a law last year allowing the use of back yard dish antennas to receive signals from satellites, said Robert Brown, a Washington lawyer who represents a trade group of dealers, manufacturers and owners of receiving dishes.
Area dealers said falling prices and better quality equipment are increasing the popularity of satellite dishes. In this region, viewers can get up to 125 channels, which include Las Vegas shows, Mexican bullfights and such cable channels as Home Box Office.
But at the same time, Brown notes, local governments have been racing to pass laws to govern use of the antennas.
"We've written a book on the subject: It's become a very large problem across the country," said Brown, general counsel for the Society for Private and Commercial Earth Stations, a 2,000-member trade group.
The group, known as SPACE, has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to pass regulations that would help block antenna-restricting zoning regulations and has gotten Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) to sponsor a Senate resolution that would call on local governments not to place severe limits on receiving-dish use.
Brown said jurisdictions in the Washington area and elsewhere are plunging into the zoning process with little understanding of satellite dish technology. In some cases, he said, the results have been "unusual."
Last year, the city of Gaithersburg passed an ordinance limiting the size of satellite dishes in residential areas to one meter, just over three feet in diameter.
"There aren't any one-meter dishes," Brown said. "They're just not made."
The D.C. Zoning Commission is scheduled to consider a proposal next week that limits residential dishes to seven feet in diameter, while a Baltimore city ordinance limits them to six feet, Brown said.
In both cases, the restrictions amount to an effective ban, because satellite dishes must be at least eight feet in diameter to work properly, he said.
While the proposed Howard measure calls for screening the antennas, the receivers need an unobstructed view of the heavens to get signals, said Chris Fazi, an electrial engineer who testified at a hearing on the proposal two weeks ago.
All four jurisdictions restrict the location of dishes to back yards, but unless the yard has a southwestern exposure, the satellite antennas will not work, said Brown.
"We think there ought to be reasonable zoning restrictions for everything, but some communities have gone completely overboard," Brown said.
The County Council, acting as the zoning board, will hold another public hearing on the proposal next week before considering it in a work session, a zoning official said.