The People's Republic of Benin won its independence from the French a quarter-century ago, but now the question is whether the tiny West African nation can win the Battle of the Radio Antenna with its neighbors in Woodley Park.
For 18 years, Benin has run its U.S. affairs out of a two-story, pale yellow stucco house at 2737 Cathedral Ave. NW after getting its instructions by telephone, telex machine or in diplomatic pouches from government officials back home in Cotonou.
Now, Ambassador Guy Landry Hazoume and his staff want to improve the speed and security of their diplomatic conversations with their homeland by erecting a 38-foot radio antenna tower in the chancery's small back yard.
But their Woodley Park neighbors have protested, voicing fears that the tower, aside from being unsightly in a predominantly residential community, will bring unwanted interference to their radio, television and stereo reception.
"There's no reason they should be adversely affected," the embassy's lawyer, Dana D. Haviland, said this week, a position echoed by State Department technical experts. "It's the same radio antenna that's on a half-dozen other embassies and there's no problem with them."
Moreover, Haviland said the embassy, because of the six-hour time difference between here and Cotonou, is likely to operate the radio only for an hour or so on weekday mornings and in emergencies.
She said the 1,000-watt antenna would be focused east toward Benin, further diminishing the chance for any interference in other directions.
Nonetheless, many of the embassy's neighbors are not pleased by the proposal. Construction of the tower, they say, is an escalation of embassy business activities in a residential neighborhood at a time when the District and the State Department are encouraging construction of new chanceries in an enclave off Connecticut Avenue NW near the Van Ness Metro station.
"The best solution would be for them to relocate out of a residential neighborhood," said Jerome A. Hochberg, a lawyer and one nearby resident opposed to the antenna's construction.
Lisa Koteen, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area, said the community's overall commission voted to oppose the construction of the 38-foot tower unless it could be proved that a shorter and less obtrusive tower was not suitable for radio transmissions to and from Benin. But she said the neighborhood's opposition seems to have stiffened since the resolution was approved in late January.
Hochberg and Koteen both complained that the chancery's grounds are not well maintained, giving them pause about how the antenna would be operated. Haviland said that to the contrary the embassy has been a good neighbor, noting that Benin supplies the water for a community garden on a vacant lot adjacent to the chancery.
Ronald Mlotek, legal counsel for the State Department's foreign missions office, said, "We have no objection to the antenna in principle," but noted that it must comply with District and Federal Communications Commission regulations.
Construction workers have already poured four concrete footings for the antenna and for guy wires to anchor it. But work has been suspended pending a resolution of the dispute. At Haviland's request, the District's Board of Zoning Adjustment postponed a hearing on the matter this week until April 24 so the State Department can try to work out a settlement of the matter.