2018 | Government

County Council Ambivalent Over Whether To Take Action on Small Cell Antennas Bill

Riemer says it’s necessary to demonstrate resolve

A cell tower


Montgomery County Council members remain divided over whether to take immediate action on a proposed zoning text amendment that would allow the construction of small cellular antennas in residential areas.

The amendment would allow the towers to both replace and be attached to existing utility poles in order to make access to faster 5G internet service widely available. A potential roadblock to the legislation is a recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that limits how much authority local jurisdictions have over installing cell towers.

Council President Hans Riemer said during a work session Tuesday that now is as good a time as ever to pass the legislation in the event that the county takes the FCC to court over the matter. Failing to pass the measure, he said, would show weakness.

“What will it say about local government’s ability to get the job done if we can’t pass this? If we don’t, we’re creating evidence that local governments can’t do it,” he said.

Riemer added that the Maryland General Assembly may also take up legislation favoring local preemption in the next session, making the passage of a county ordinance even more important.

“Having enacted our own ordinance would be a strong advantage for us,” he said.

Riemer, at times sounding impatient, noted the council has been working on the cell tower ordinance for two years both in committee and through the executive drafting process. He said the fact that there have been five drafts and three public hearings is “pretty unusual.”

“We are a leader in 5G issues throughout the country. This is a simple issue. We have a lot to gain and a lot to lose,” he said.

Riemer was joined by his colleague, council member George Leventhal, in the sentiment that 5G service will soon be a necessity for all residents and that “the future will come whether we vote against it or not.”

The proposed legislation has been met with fierce opposition from residents who are concerned that the towers will pose a health risk due to the presence of microwave radiation and also drive down property values. Leventhal said those sentiments he’s heard from constituents are “legitimate,” but that the FCC has ruled that zoning decisions can’t be made based on health concerns.

“Not any decision that this council makes will ever be pleasing to 100 percent of the people,” he said.

Leventhal, who will leave office at the end of the year because of term limits, added that he thought it would be better to pass the bill during the current council session instead of passing the issue on to a council that will have four new members next year, after the Nov. 6 election, who will be less familiar with the details of the amendment.

A number of technical issues still have to be worked out, such as the minimum distance the towers may be set back from buildings. The council initially determined that number to be 30 feet, but has been considering extending it to 60 feet. Members also have also been working on determining whether the poles should be classified as a conditional use in neighborhoods where the utilities are underground, which would require approval by the county Planning Department and the Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings.

Council member Sidney Katz said it would be better to wait until the next council session to take up the issue again.

“If we can have everyone sitting at the same table and have a good discussion, I think that would be beneficial,” he said.

Council member Roger Berliner, who also will be leaving the council due to term limits, favored voting this year, instead of forcing new council members to deal with the bill. Using a lighthearted metaphor, he added that residents deserve to get answers to the many questions they have had about the towers.

“This is something that has our community’s underwear up in a bunch. That’s a technical term,” he said.

The council will take up the bill once more at its Oct. 23 meeting.

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