The Montgomery County Council quietly introduced a bill on Tuesday that would renew debate over small cellular antennas in residential areas.
Council Member Hans Riemer is sponsoring the legislation, which revisits an issue the council discussed — and tabled — last year. The bill proposes another zoning change that would allow telecommunications companies to install 5G antennas on pre-existing utility and streetlight poles.
In most cases, the sponsor of a new bill offers a few remarks when the legislation is first introduced to the council. But in this case, the zoning change was offered with no comment and little fanfare — an unceremonious reintroduction of an issue that’s spanned two executive administrations.
The technology has long been a source of consternation for Montgomery County residents and legislators, who discussed it for months before tabling the original bill last year. 5G antennas — also known as small cell towers — are touted as the gateway to next-generation cellular technology, allowing faster internet speeds and greater connectivity.
They mark a significant shift from older cell towers — large-scale installations that often stretch 100 feet or higher. Cell companies such as Verizon say 5G networks require smaller equipment installed closer together and lower to the ground to build efficient coverage areas.
To build those networks, companies are seeking to install 5G antennas on public utilities across the country. Often, the infrastructure falls in residential areas, Riemer said, where there are a high number of existing utility poles.
The advancement of 5G technology challenges the county’s current zoning code, which prohibits cell towers within 300 feet of residential zones.
“But if you made a map of every existing utility pole and every existing light pole in the county, and then eliminated any that were within 300 feet of a house, you wouldn’t have any left,” Riemer said. “And that’s a big issue when it comes to implementing 5G.”
The issue has spurred conflict nationwide between local municipalities and companies working to install the antennas. In Montgomery County, residents complained that the small cell towers would lower property values or even cause cancer — a health fear that scientists have widely debunked.
Debate over the antennas derailed last year’s bill, which introduced the possibility of 5G technology in residential areas. Council members couldn’t agree on the setback length for the cell towers or whether to establish them as a conditional use requiring approval from the Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings.
“I just don’t think we had the votes to get it done,” Riemer said, referring to his decision to table the bill. But revisiting the legislation is important, he said, as the growth of 5G technology becomes inevitable.
In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission issued a ruling that limited local governments’ ability to regulate 5G networks. Montgomery County is one of many jurisdictions challenging the decision.
“And we’re not challenging it because we want to fight 5G,” Riemer said. “We’re challenging it because local government can do the regulation better. But it’s also a case of ‘use it or lose it.’ If we don’t establish rules about deploying this technology, then the federal government or the state is going to come in and do it for us.”
The new bill would allow small cell antennas in residential areas as long as they replace an existing pole and are at least 60 feet from a residential building. The legislation also sets height and design restrictions for the antennas, which must be at least 15 feet from the ground.
When additional height or a reduced setback are needed to provide service — or to locate the cell tower on a less obtrusive property — a hearing examiner may approve the technology as a conditional use, according to the bill. No small cell tower can be closer than 30 feet to a residential building.
The Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings must decide on conditional use applications within 90 days — a mandate included in the FCC’s 2018 ruling, Riemer said.
“And we can’t say we don’t approve a tower because we don’t want or need 5G,” he added. “We all just have to accept that this is coming and keep fighting to maintain our ability to regulate it.”