Legislation To Permit More Antennas in Mixed-Use Zones Clears Planning Board

Bill will now head to County Council for consideration


County planning officials on Thursday voted in favor of a measure to allow more telecommunications antennas in commercial areas, such as downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda.

Under the proposal, the antennas could replace a pre-existing utility pole, streetlight pole or parking lot light pole in mixed-use zones. The antennas would have to comply with a variety of rules for placement, appearance and dimension.

County Executive Ike Leggett offered the proposal last month, presenting it as a balanced approach to the need for mobile broadband services and public concerns about the proliferation of antennas.

“On the one hand, we all welcome the coming transformation that allows us to be one of the most digitally connected counties at home and at business. On the other hand, many of our residents are concerned about the placement of these antennas,” Leggett wrote to the County Council on Feb. 2.

The Montgomery County Planning Board unanimously approved Leggett’s proposed zoning text amendment, which is slated for a public hearing before the council next month.

Leggett sponsored a series of public forums in the past year to hear from community members about the issue of small cell antennas. Some people have mentioned the potential health effects of radio frequency emissions from antennas placed near to homes, and a bill previously before the council sparked significant community pushback because of its impact on neighborhoods. The council is not scheduled to take action on this earlier proposal, according to a planning report.

Leggett said his new proposal takes public input into consideration by the limiting the changes in residential zones. However, he added that he’d be returning at a later date with legislation affecting neighborhoods.

The bill now on the table revises antenna size standards and prohibits attaching the equipment to houses, duplexes and townhouses.

The updated rules that allow more antennas in mixed-use zones would be particularly helpful in urbanized areas, a planning staff analysis stated.

“More antennas are needed in commercial areas, such as downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda, where concentrated use of mobile devices is straining network capacity,” the report stated.

Under the proposal, the antennas could replace pre-existing utility poles only if they meet certain standards, including:

  • Antennas in place of utility poles and parking lot lights can’t be more than 10 feet taller than the pre-existing pole;
  • Antennas in place of street lights can’t be more than six feet taller than the pre-existing pole near smaller roads or more than 15 feet taller near larger roads; and
  • Equipment cabinets for the antennas must have a volume of less than 12 cubic feet in most cases.

In his letter, Leggett wrote the Federal Communications Commission has the authority to regulate radio emissions from the towers and said the agency’s health standards are decades old. He wrote that he and other local representatives have pressed the FCC to update the standards.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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