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TV dishes: banned in Boston?

The Hub is the first big city to weigh satellite dish rules, citing a need to preserve historic charm.

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Quick. How can you tell which way is south in Boston? Answer: Just look up to see what direction everybody's satellite TV dishes are pointed.

The proliferation of satellite television from companies like DirectTV and EchoStar has some city councilors here considering an ordinance to minimize the visibility of the dishes in the name of preserving the historic charm of neighborhoods.

Installers often forego roofs and backs of buildings, opting to bolt the receivers near windows facing streets. Rather than reusing or dismantling older dishes, companies usually tack on another dish for each new customer in an apartment. The result, as seen in photos at a city council meeting Friday, are mutliplexes that begin to look like the Star Ship Enterprise.

"The building next to my home, which only has two tenants now who have satellite, has nine dishes, and it's because [of] people who have moved in and out," Gregg Iezza, an East Boston resident, stated at the hearing. "The satellite dishes almost kept us [from moving to] East Boston."

Beantown is the first major city to take on the issue, but it's unlikely to be the last, as gentrifying urban areas grow more sensitive to property values, and as the dishes accumulate with renter turnover. Less clear is whether federal rules allow municipal governments much leeway to regulate the matter.

A 1996 federal law mandated the Over-the-Air Receptions Devices Rule, prohibiting restrictions that cause unreasonable delays or costs, or preclude decent reception. Safety is one exception. Historic preservation is another, as long as the location is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But the industry says exemption doesn't apply to wide areas. "You can't just say, 'Oh that's an historic area of Boston' and then do broad-based legislation that would impede someone's rights to [satellite] programming," said Patricia Sumler of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association. "We are very mindful of the aesthetics issue ... [and] we are willing to help you try and find a solution."

City Council president Michael Flaherty raised the issue after receiving a constituent complaint. He says he was skeptical at first, but after walking with the resident, and hearing from others, he changed his view about the dishes. "This sounds crazy, but now I notice them," Mr. Flaherty says.

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