The District government yesterday rejected a bid by the People's Republic of Benin to build a 38-foot radio tower in the backyard of its Northwest Washington embassy, a decision that angered the State Department and pleased Woodley Park residents.
The D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment voted 4 to 0 against construction of the tower, agreeing with the embassy's Woodley Park neighbors who said that the tower would be "visually obtrusive," possibly interfere with radio, television and stereo reception, lower property values and create a safety hazard that children might try to climb.
The West African nation, weary of having to get its instructions from government officials back home in Cotonou by telephone or telex machine or in diplomatic pouches, said that it needs the tower to improve the speed and security of its communications. Construction crews had already poured the concrete footings for the tower at the rear of the embassy, a two-story pale yellow stucco house at 2737 Cathedral Ave. NW.
Board member Maybelle T. Bennett, in offering the motion to reject the tower, said the embassy had not proved that the tower "won't affect the neighboring residents. It is visually obtrusive. Making it harder to sell your home in that area is an adverse effect."
The board in the past has approved construction of radio station towers. It apparently was only the second time that it has turned down an embassy's bid for a tower -- the other instance was more than 20 years ago.
Ronald Mlotek, legal counsel for the State Department's foreign missions office, said State "will certainly have to consider appealing" the decision to the D.C. Court of Appeals. Benin's ambassador, Guy Landry Hazoume, could not be reached for comment.
"We're very disappointed," Mlotek said. "It will certainly make operating U.S. embassies abroad in a safe and secure manner more difficult. Our embassies depend on their communications as their lifeline. They also depend on it to conduct diplomatic relations.
"Reciprocity is the first and the most fundamental rule of diplomatic relations," he said. "We, the United States, can hardly expect other countries to give us what we cannot give those countries here."
But Joanne W. Young, a lawyer whose home abuts the embassy property, said that Woodley Park residents, more than 450 of whom signed a petition against construction of the tower, "felt this would affect the character of the neighborhood. It was an eyesore. The neighbors take a great deal of pride in their property.
"There are embassies scattered throughout residential communities in Washington," she said. "Had the decision gone the other way, embassies would have had open season to build these antennas."
She said the Benin embassy has other options to improve its communications, such as constructing an antenna at a remote site while still sending the messages from the embassy. Other residents said the best solution would be for the embassy to relocate elsewhere, such as in the area off Connecticut Avenue NW, near the Van Ness Metro station, where the District and the State Department are encouraging construction of chanceries.
The board rejected the tower even though the agency's legal adviser, Assistant Corporation Counsel Andrea Johnson, said that the "nature and extent of the interference that might be caused by the radio antenna is unknown. The BZA has insufficient facts to consider whether it will cause interference.
Johnson told the board that it could approve the antenna with various conditions.
But Bennett asked, "How could we condition an approval to make it not visually obtrusive?"