County Council Unanimously Approves Zoning Changes for Small Cell Antennas

County Council Unanimously Approves Zoning Changes for Small Cell Antennas

Move will enable more antennas to be installed in mixed-use, commercial and industrial zones

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Small cell tower

via Wikimedia Commons

The County Council on Tuesday approved standards for installing small cell antennas in commercial and industrial areas.

The legislation outlining the standards faced controversy after residents testified in a series of public hearings about health concerns and aesthetic issues with the antennas possibly inundating residential areas.

However, the changes approved by the council would not affect rules for installing the antennas in residential zones and the antennas are not permitted on detached homes or townhouses.

The zoning changes would permit the new antennas to be installed on existing utility poles in mixed-use, commercial and industrial zones. They would also lessen setback requirements and lower the height limit for buildings where antennas can be installed in those zones.

Wireless cell service providers such as Verizon and T-Mobile have been installing small cell antennas around the country as a way to provide faster 5G cell service.

“This is really intended to make some modest changes to reflect the reality of our world,” council member Nancy Floreen said about the zoning changes. “Cell service is highly relevant to our residents. This is the wave of the future and we have an obligation to serve all our residents.”

At a public hearing about the proposed changes in early April, some residents said they were concerned the new antennas would emit radiation that could pose a health risk to humans.

The county is prohibited under federal law from acting on residential health concerns related to radio frequency emissions, such as those produced by cell towers, according to council staff documents.

The changes were approved as the Federal Communication Commission considers regulations that could preempt county restrictions regarding cell towers. For example, the county is not permitted to prohibit wireless services from operating and the FCC is considering regulations that would prevent local governments from establishing wireless application and right-of-way fees, according to council staff.

Earlier this year, a state bill was proposed in the General Assembly that would have prevented the county from passing any significant zoning regulations concerning small cell antennas, but that bill did not move forward.

Still, county officials remain concerned future state or federal regulations could preempt the new zoning regulations.

In addition to on existing utility poles, the approved legislation enables the antennas to be installed on existing streetlights and limits their extension to no more than 15 feet above the existing pole height.

The zoning changes also reduced the height limit for new large telecommunications towers from a maximum height of 199 feet to 179 feet.

Council member George Leventhal said Tuesday there was some misinformation in the community that passage of the legislation would lead to a proliferation of small cell antennas in residential communities. However, council zoning adviser Jeff Zyontz said the legislation would not change the current zoning requirements for antennas in residential areas, other than lowering the tower height limit.

Council President Hans Riemer said during a press briefing Monday that the new small cell antennas will help handle the ever-increasing demands on the cell tower network as more people use data on their phones and other devices.

“This is really about the future of wireless and whether the device that you have today will be able to meet the needs you have for however you want to use your phone, your laptop or whatever device you have in five or 10 years,” Riemer said.

He added that the telecommunications industry can’t continue to install the 300-foot cell towers that dot the region due to limited space and are instead relying on the smaller antennas to meet the demands caused by increasing data usage by customers.

On Tuesday, administration officials said they were also analyzing the cost of processing applications for new antennas to make sure the county is recouping the expense through its application fees. Council member Marc Elrich said he understood the fees hadn’t been raised since 2003.

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