2021 | Government

County Council amends bill that could allow 5G cell antennas, rejects further delay

Some council members criticize ‘last-minute’ memo from county executive

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The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday made changes to a bill to allow 5G cell service, including where antennas may be built and the height of new poles.

The council is deliberating a zoning text amendment that would provide guidelines for the placement of antennas countywide.

5G networks require smaller equipment that can be placed closer together. That creates a more robust, faster network, versus 4G towers, which often stretch hundreds of feet into the air and are more spaced out.

The small cell antennas for 5G can also be placed on existing utility poles or similar structures. Overall, 5G provides greater speeds and data transfer than 4G technology.

Supporters of allowing the technology countywide — including Council Member Hans Riemer, who has worked on the zoning text amendment since at least 2018 — believe it’s needed to provide better internet access, including where telecommunications companies cannot extend wired networks.

Opponents are concerned about the proliferation of poles throughout their communities.

They also have expressed concerns about health risks, often citing a 2018 study from the National Toxicology Program headquartered at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which showed that extremely high doses of radio frequency radiation — the transfer of energy of radio waves — were linked to cancerous heart tumors in male rats.

But The National Cancer Institute says radio waves are non-ionizing, meaning they don’t have the energy to break apart DNA and cause cancer. The World Health Organization has said radio frequency radiation is “possibly carcinogenic,” but that designation also applies to talcum powder and ginkgo extract.

Council members approved three amendments unanimously on Tuesday:

  • One, proposed by Riemer, limits the height of any new pole for 5G antennas. Including the actual antenna and equipment, it must be no higher than the nearest pre-existing streetlight or utility pole. It can be 6 feet higher when next to a right-of-way with a paved section of 65 feet or less, or 15 feet higher when next to a right-of-way with paved section greater than 65 feet.
  • One, proposed by Council Member Andrew Friedson, states that a new pole can only be constructed if there is no utility pole or streetlight within 150 feet of the proposed spot
  • One, proposed by Council Member Nancy Navarro, makes sure that “tree loss minimization” is included in all franchise agreements for new 5G antennas, to protect their roots and other aspects that might be affected by construction of new polls

The current zoning text amendment says residents within 300 feet of any new pole would be notified by mail and could object to its construction by attending a public hearing with the county’s hearing examiner in the Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings.  

Antennas would be allowed on existing poles up to 30 feet from any building. A public hearing would be required for proposed poles less than 30 feet from a habitable structure.

On Tuesday, County Executive Marc Elrich’s office sent a memo to the County Council at around 12:30 p.m., during a break in the meeting.

The letter called for multiple changes. One was related to placing a new pole where the speed limit nearby was less than 35 miles per hour. The setback should be increased to 75 feet, the memo recommended. 

Several council members were disappointed that Elrich’s office sent another memo with recommended changes late in the process. During the morning of the council’s meeting on June 29, Elrich had asked for council members to convene a task force to look at the issue.

Council Member Evan Glass said his email inbox was full of messages from constituents concerned about the amendment that would allow for 5G small cell antennas countywide in certain circumstances. 

Glass proposed his own task force to look at the issue, and said a final vote on the bill should wait until after the council’s August recess. But only Council Member Sidney Katz supported this proposal. The council did not vote on it. 

Other council members said they should vote before the August recess, since the issue has been debated in the community for years and Montgomery County is falling behind Washington, D.C., Prince George’s County and other jurisdictions with 5G small cell antenna laws.

Hucker said the council is in a tough position when late memos come in during council meetings.

Debbie Spielberg, a special assistant in Elrich’s office who has worked on 5G issues, said the new memo was “not anything new,” but rather the June 29 memo “put into legislative language.” 

Council members agreed that Livhu Ndou, a legislative attorney for the County Council, would review Elrich’s new memo, and provide feedback on major proposed changes.

Council members have until Thursday to draft further amendments to the overall zoning text amendment. 

The council is set to vote on any further amendments next week, with a final vote on the overall proposal potentially occurring on July 27. The council’s scheduled summer recess is from Aug. 2 to Sept. 12.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com