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Do dishes violate city code?

April 20, 2011

by Brian Hubert

This property at 657 Morris St has a satellite dish mounted to the front porch (Brian Hubert)

Homeowners and tenants who have satellite dishes attached to the front of their house could face fines for violating a city code.

Those gray dishes offering an alternative to cable for people who want hundreds of digital channels are a ubiquitous fixture on the fronts of buildings from the Pine Hills to homes and businesses throughout the city. But dish etiquette differs from street to street.

Regulations govern dish installation, according to the city building code.

City residents are required to obtain a special use permit to install a satellite dish. The code also states that satellite dishes cannot be visible between ground level and six feet above ground level from any street adjoining a property.  It also states that dishes must be screened from view by a six-foot high wood wall, or by natural evergreen vegetation.

However, federal law regarding satellite installations is much less restrictive.  The  Over the Air Reception Devices ruling

City code bans sattelite dishes from being visible from 6 to 10 feet above street level (Brian Hubert)

passed in 1996 gave homeowners and tenants who want to install satellite TV several new rights, while limiting some restrictions municipalities can place on dishes.

It appears that the part of the  city code requiring a special use zoning permit conflicts with federal regulations.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, “restrictions that prevent or delay installation, maintenance or use of antennas covered by the rule are prohibited. For example, in most cases, requirements to get approval before installing an antenna are prohibited.”

Over in the Town of Colonie adjacent to Albany, Town Building Inspector John Busch said there are no rules regarding satellite dish installations.

After inquiries by the Pine Hills Blog, the Albany City Council may change its requirement for special use permits for satellite dishes, according to James Sano, councilman for the ninth ward.  The Zoning Board of Appeals has more important issues, Sano said.

Back in 1936 people tuned into the radio for their nightly entertainment. AM stations included today’s WGY

He is planning a committee meeting to address the potential changes, but  a specific date for the meeting has not been set yet.

Sano, who represents parts of the Pine Hills, New Scotland-Woodlawn, and Helderberg Neighborhoods,  said the 14-year-old city code, was created in direct response to resident complaints about the aesthetics of satellite dishes.

“The dishes made the neighborhood look run down and crummy. That’s why I put the ordinance change in,” Sano said.  “It’s to call attention to the installers, that we’ve always had the codes in the book. We’ve got installers going around willy nilly regardless of the code,” Sano said.

“I don’t mind if they’re on a pole on the rear, just not up front, it starts to look like a junk yard,” Sano said.  “I installed a couple of them when you could just buy them, and install them yourself. We had enough common sense to put in the back,” Sano said.

The roof is also fine as long as the dish is not visible from the street, Sano said.  “Anything

This Property on North Allen Street near the Pine Hills Elementary School has a dish sticking out of the front wall. (Brian Hubert)

in front of the chimney is not in compliance.”

The city will not be looking to penalize people solely for having a satellite dish mounted illegally, Sano said.  If we are at the property for something else we will penalize for a dish mounted in violation of code, Sano said.

Since the ordinance dates to 1997, the city can make people take down a dish. If  a resident wants to keep their dish up front, they must prove they had it before 1997 Sano said.

Sano has no desire to deny homeowners satellite TV.  Sano wants to go after installers, not homeowners.

Installers put dishes on front of the property, because they want to put them up as quick as they can Sano said. Installers get paid by how many they put up in a day Sano said. The installers can’t plead ignorance on the law, since this ordinance came into effect in 1997, Sano said.

Owner gets an “E” for effort for hiding dish in shrub. (Brian Hubert)

Thirteenth ward Councilman Daniel Herring wants to involve installers in the process of updating the code.   “Installers don’t know exactly what the requirements are,”  Herring said.  Some kind of education process is needed for installers, Herring said. “This is definitely a process that will evolve over time,” Herring said.

Herring said the city code dates to when satellite dishes were giant discs as large as 10 feet in diameter.  “The laws are not applicable to the environment we are in.  It was not anticipated that the dishes would be come so ubiquitous,” Herring said.

Sano said  the proliferation of the small dishes caught the city off guard.  It was not a problem until the small dishes started appearing on front lawns Sano said.  “Eighty five percent of the satellite dishes are in the right place in the back of the property,” Sano said.

The city took take action to deal with dishes that are in poles in the front yard or in trees Sano said.

FCC regulations allow the City to create codes regarding dish placement Herring said.   “City codes are there to regulate installations and presentations of all sorts of things,” Herring said.   Herring has never personally received complaints about satellite dishes, but he said most complaints about satellite dishes are aesthetic based.

It’s spring time, and it appears that this DirectTV dish sprouted right out of this bush on N Allen St (Brian Hubert)

After reading the FCC ruling, Herring said, “I think you are on to something here. I think the regs are clear, that the city code can not deny or permit, as we do now by requiring special use permits, the installation of satellite dishes,” Herring said.

“The city couldn’t ban satellite dishes and not issue permits. That is in violation of the FCC ruling.  No code, can supercede the authority of the next level of government,” Herring said.

He said that a change in FCC regulations could also bring changes to the code. “We would go back and amend our law to meet the federal regulations.  We generally, could modify our rules to bring them into compliance,” Herring said.

Any code changes would need to be passed by the council, Herring said.

According to Nicholas DiLello, director at the buildings

The satellite dish in the bush is in front of this property on N Allen St (Brian Hubert)

department, the city is actively enforcing the code. No fine is levied if violators remove dishes deemed in violation, DiLello said.  “We just want compliance with the code,” DiLello said.

Police officers can issue tickets for improper satellite dish installation, said Officer Kevin Seel assistant to the chief at the Albany Police Department.  The city code and violation department usually issues the violation Seel said. “I was informed that codes issues them all the time, especially for setting up satellite dishes on the front lawn,” Seel said.

Mark Hall who works at American Satellite, a Watervilet based firm that has installed thousands of dishes since 1980, said, the laws and regulations passed by cities, and homeowner associations are preempted by the federal act.  “The city can only limit installation if it’s a historic building.  If it’s not historic you don’t need a building permit,” Hall said.

Hall remembers a case regarding one of his installations for a homeowner in Niskayuna who  wanted to put up a large dish on his property several years ago.  “The town of Niskayuna had a rule stating that satellite dishes could not be a more than four feet in diameter, even though they had a eight foot dish on the roof of town hall on Balltown Road. He hired an attorney and took Niskayuna to federal court and he won under the Satellite Home Viewing Act,” Hall said.

Basically the ruling stated that the town was, “Denying him his right of communication” Hall said.   “If you want to pick up your television over satellite, why should you have to get cable.  They “the cable companies” They’re trying to create a monopoly,” Hall said.

Sano is also very familiar with satellite dishes. “I was the first non-commercial application for the DirectTV back in 1993,” Sano said.  In the early 90′s people like Hippo’s and Towne TV knew that dishes had to be installed in the back of the property Sano said.  In the beginning, people could buy the equipment and do whatever they wanted with it Sano said.

Several Dishes dot this property at 537 Morris St. (Brian Hubert)

At first Sano felt the service provided by satellite was great.  Satellite customers could get NBC affiliates and basketball games from the entire country at no extra cost, Sano said.   “It was fabulous when it started,  Now I went back to cable because it’s a better value.”

Sano still has the dishes he bought on the back of his property. “The equipment gets dated so fast, they don’t want it back,” Sano said.   Sano also did not like the fact that Direct TV kept requiring him to change dishes when new ones came out.

For renters the rules are different.  Hall says tenants have the right to install a dish as well.  The ruling for this comes under the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act of 1999, which allows tenants to install dishes without the approval of their landlords in certain cases Hall said. “If you have a balcony, you can attach it with temporary brackets, as long as you don’t screw it into the building.   If you put it in a common area where other tenants walk, that’s not your space,” Hall said.

Howard Carr, a landlord in the Pine Hills Neighborhood said he does not have a policy for tenants who install satellite

A 1996 FCC Ruling bans municipalities from requiring zoning permits for satellite dishes (Brian Hubert)

dishes.  “No ones ever asked,” Carr said.  Carr did not know his tenants installed two dishes on the front of the building.   “I’ll have to take a look,” Carr said

A place where a local municipality can put up regulations for satellite dish installations is in a historic district, Hall said.

Cara Macri, Director of Preservation Services at the Historic Albany Foundation knows these rules well.   If people live in a historic district, the landlord or homeowner cannot have a satellite dish that is visible from a public street Macri said.   “You can put it on top, or the back, as long as it is not visible from the road,” Macri said.   The Board of Zoning Appeals must approve the dish, Macri said.

There are 17 historic districts in Albany including, areas like Ten Broeck Triangle and downtown,  and parts of Arbor Hill, the South End, and Washington Park, Macri said.

Dishes are restricted in historic districts in part because of aesthetic reasons, but also due to maintenance issues Macri

A Times Union From 1936 listed plays and movies at several theaters including the Palace in Albany. These plays and films were a popular diversion from the gloom of the Great Depression

said.  “You don’t rip off a slate roof to put in a satellite dish. it will leak,” Macri said.

If people need to place a dish where it is visible from the street to receive reception in a historic district they can work with the Historic Resource Commission to come up with a middle of the road solution, Macri said.    You have two boards that must approve this, Macri said.

The Pine Hills is not a historic district so dish installations do not require the approval of the Historic Resource Commission,  Macri said.

Homeowners are looking to make Manning Boulevard a historic district Macri said.   If an area becomes a historic district after people have already installed dishes they are grandfathered in Macri said.  The only time they would need to make a change is if they replace the dish, or install a new one Macri said.

When people place a dish. the location has a lot to do with signal quality Hall said. “The satellite has to look towards the Southwest sky in order to receive the best picture.   The satellite won’t look through trees or your house. You can’t just say your going to hide it on the north side of your house,” Hall said.

Sano does not believe exceptions should be made to the city code for residents who can’t view the southern sky from the back of their property.  “If you can get the southern sky that’s great, if you can’t put it on the side rear or the rear than you’re out of luck,” Sano said. -30-


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