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Lights Leave Residents Seeing Red

Flashing lamps atop radio towers bring complaints from Echo Park homeowners. The FAA has agreed to cut the beacons' intensity.

August 18, 2003|Julie Tamaki | Times Staff Writer

Every night, as Andrew Garsten looks out from his hillside home in Echo Park, he sees red -- big, red, flashing lights.

The lights, which were installed in June on four of six radio towers owned by Miami-based Radio Unica, have caused an uproar, not just in Echo Park, where they are anchored at North Alvarado and Aaron streets, but in neighboring Angelino Heights and Silver Lake.

Frustrated residents contend that the tops of the towers are about the same level as many hillside homes, causing the lights to flash directly into windows. They have set up an e-mail address to post updates and have collected about 120 signatures on a petition "to stop the light pollution."

"It's flash on, flash off. It can drive you crazy, particularly if you have windows that face in that direction," said Echo Park resident Judy Raskin, who has draped pillowcases on windows to mask the dusk-till-dawn glare.

"A lot of people don't know what to do or what to make of it -- kind of like the governor's election," Garsten said. "They're confused and think maybe it's part of an emergency situation."

Although L.A. officials have received a number of calls, the city has no jurisdiction in the matter.

In fact, the situation has hit home for Councilman Eric Garcetti, who can see the lights from his Echo Park home.

"These lights have resulted in countless complaints to my office and to the offices of other city and federal elected officials in the area," wrote Garcetti in a letter to federal officials, seeking a review to "determine what can be done to return peace to this neighborhood."

Bill Jenkins, general manager of KBLA Radio Unica, said he also received about half a dozen calls since the lights were activated and immediately began working with federal officials to find an acceptable compromise.

"We recognize it's an imposition and inconvenience, mostly for the small number of people" at the top of the hill, Jenkins said.

KBLA purchased the 205-foot towers, which were erected in the 1960s, five years ago and upgraded the facility. The Spanish-language station then applied for a new license from the Federal Communications Commission.

The agency had the station obtain a determination from the Federal Aviation Administration that the towers did not pose a hazard to aircraft, said agency spokesman Donn Walker.

When evaluated under current guidelines, which reflect a proliferation of helicopter traffic, the station needed to install the lights to obtain the FAA determination. Such lighting is suggested for structures more than 200 feet tall.

The FAA lacked the authority to order that lights be installed, Walker said, but the station could not obtain the no-hazard determination without them.

And lacking that, he continued, the station could not get its broadcast license from the FCC.

Taking the "unique situation" into consideration, Walker announced Friday that the FAA would grant a waiver allowing the station to reduce the lights' intensity by more than 90% and eliminate the flashing.

"We believe this will provide an enormous amount of relief for the neighborhood and still allow aircraft to fly safely over the neighborhood," he said.

Walker couldn't say when the change might take place. KBLA's Jenkins could not be reached for comment Friday, but said earlier in the week that his station was willing to work with the FAA and the community to turn down the lights.

But just dimming the lights isn't enough for some residents.

"Nothing less than the lights being turned off is going to be satisfactory," said Garsten, whose view of the Mid-Wilshire and Century City area is marred by the flashing beacons. He questioned why KBLA had not consulted the community before installing them.

"We don't want to stand up and say our view is more important than people's lives, but that's not what this is," said Echo Park resident Gary Friedlander, who doubts that the change in intensity will reduce the glare by 90%. He pointed out that FAA guidelines do not call for lights on towers less than 200 feet tall.

If the FAA can persuade residents that a serious safety concern exists, Friedlander said, they will stop petitioning the agency and instead ask the station to lower its towers or relocate them.

One resident, who has lived across the street from the towers for 25 years and asked not to be identified, said he was glad the lights were installed.

"The helicopters, many times, they are very close," he said. "Without the lights I believe it was a hazard for the helicopters."

"We're in a very urban setting, so perhaps we should have been able to predict back in the '60s there would be such congestion -- particularly up in the air -- as we now know there is," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), who has been working with residents, the FAA and KBLA officials to find a solution.

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