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County Council Again Delays Vote on Small Cell Antennas Bill

Tuesday is last chance for members to pass proposed zoning change this year

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Small cell antenna

File photo

The Montgomery County Council will have one more opportunity this year to vote on a proposed zoning change that would allow small cellular antennas to be added in neighborhoods and commercial areas in order to enable faster 5G wireless service.

The council was set to vote on the bill at Tuesday’s hearing, but members couldn’t agree on a number of amendments that had been proposed. Council members must pass the bill before Oct. 31, which is the deadline for passage of zoning text amendments in a given year, according to county zoning. They will take up the issue again at their meeting Tuesday, which is the day before the deadline. If the council doesn’t pass the legislation Tuesday, consideration of passage will have to wait until a new council is seated next year after the Nov. 6 general election.

The legislation would allow wireless service providers to attach antennas that are 12 to 20 cubic feet in size to an existing pole, or in some cases allow new poles to be constructed to replace existing poles or add 5G service to neighborhoods where utility lines run underground. Replacement poles that are 22 feet or taller would be limited to an additional 6 feet of height if replacing a streetlight, and 10 feet if replacing another type of utility pole. For poles shorter than 22 feet, the placement would be subject to review by the county Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings.

During Tuesday’s hearing, council members debated several proposed amendments that would alter aspects of the plan such as setback length and whether some towers would be classified as a “limited use” or a “conditional use,” the latter of which would mean that a hearing examiner would need to approve the tower. By a 6-3 vote, the council passed an amendment proposed by council member Tom Hucker that would require replacement towers to be classified as a conditional use. Council President Hans Riemer and members Nancy Floreen and Craig Rice voted against the amendment.

But some council members appeared to be frustrated by the council’s inability to pass the bill, which was introduced this past spring following two years of discussions about the antennas. Council member George Leventhal, who is leaving the council at the end of the year due to term limits, said the council needed to pass the law in order to show it is capable of handling the small cell issue—in the wake of a federal preemption law recently passed by the Federal Communications Commission and another that the Maryland General Assembly is expected to take up in its session next spring. If the council doesn’t pass the bill, it would show that “the largest county in the state can’t handle” the issue, he said.

“It’s much more likely that we can handle it than the next council can handle it,” he said.

Several residents groups have opposed the addition of the antennas due to fears over microwave radiation, a decline of property values and what they consider other unpleasant aesthetic aspects. Leventhal said the addition of 5G technology in the county was inevitable, and that no matter what, some constituents wouldn’t be satisfied.

“We can’t stop 5G from going to neighborhoods in Montgomery County,” he said.

Riemer too, said 5G was “in the county’s future,” and that it was better to get the technology implemented sooner rather than later.

But Floreen, an outgoing council member who is running for county executive, said she still sensed concern from the community based on observations in her neighborhood. She said there wouldn’t be any harm in waiting for the next council to take a look at the issue.

“Why are we doing this? Because of Halloween, when we have to act? … You’re telling the community they’re going to have a voice when they’re not,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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