The Montgomery County Council’s long-awaited vote on proposed legislation that would allow small cell antennas into residential areas appears to be all but dead.
The council removed scheduled action on the zoning change bill from its Tuesday afternoon agenda, legislative information officer Sonya Healy wrote in an email. There is always the possibility that council members could vote to add it back, she wrote.
County spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Tuesday morning the legislation was likely pulled because there wasn’t a majority of the nine council members who planned to vote in favor of it.
The council has been studying the issue of allowing the placement of small cell towers and antennas in the county in order to install faster 5G wireless service for the last two years. According to the bill, the antennas would be 12 to 20 cubic feet in size and would either be attached to an existing utility pole, or be part of a new replacement pole.
At the Oct. 23 council session, council member Tom Hucker proposed an amendment that would require the replacement towers to be a conditional use, meaning the county’s hearing examiner from the Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings would need to approve applications for installing the towers. Hucker’s amendment would also double the setback length of the towers from 30 to 60 feet in most cases. The amendment was a source of controversy among council members, but ultimately passed by a vote of 6 to 3.
Lacefield said that Hucker’s amendment created unnecessary bureaucracy and was the main reason that the bill was pulled from the agenda.
“We’re gonna at some point have a statement from the county executive on it. Basically, this means that we’re not able to draw some limits around where small cells go,” he said.
Lacefield said the council’s inability to pass the zoning change means the state and federal governments will likely be the ones to decide where the cell antennas can be installed in the county. Council President Hans Riemer along with outgoing council member George Leventhal have been among those who have said repeatedly that it is important for the county to approve its own legislation, instead of being preempted by the state and federal government. Leventhal has said the current council needs to act because new council members who will take office in January, after the Nov. 6 election, will not be as familiar with the small cell issue.
In a press release, Riemer said the council had made “significant progress” on the small cell bill, but that changes proposed by his colleagues would have “undermined the central purpose of the zoning measure.” He did not name any specific council members.
“Building infrastructure is always difficult and some residents object to having small cell antennas in their neighborhoods. A zoning measure based on a goal of keeping wireless away from our residents is not realistic or desirable. I do not, and will not, support that approach,” he wrote.
In an interview Tuesday, Riemer said he remained optimistic that the next council could pass the zoning change.
“I think we can get it done before the state or federal government will succeed in preempting us. It’s more important to get something done right than passing a bad ordinance,” he said.
Hucker defended his amendment in an email, writing that the six council members were “responding to widespread public concerns.”
“The proposal we received would have allowed cell towers right in front of thousands of homes, schools, and houses of worship in Montgomery County. Homeowners would have no notice and no right to appeal. The industry lobbyists loved the bill, but residents have objected very loudly,” he wrote.
Opposition to the current legislation remains from citizens groups, including the Montgomery County Coalition for the Control of Cell Towers. The residents are concerned about the towers being close to their homes, which they feel could cause health problems due to microwave radiation coming from the antennas. They are also worried that the aesthetics of the antennas could lead to a decline in property values.
Susannah Goodman, who is a member of the group, said there needs to be a “data driven master plan” that can help determine a solution where residents receive the 5G service without having a tower or antenna placed close to their home.
“We need to look at all the locations in the county and figure out where all of these towers can go. If the outcome is we get to have a common sense solutions going forward and they don’t have to go 30 feet in front people homes where they’re really not enhancing service, that’s a victory,” she said.
Lacefield said County Executive Ike Leggett’s staff members were trying to work out a solution on the bill up until last night.
“We have a bill now. Let’s deal with it. There’s no reason at the 11th hour we can’t deal with it right now. It’s not clear that anything will change with a new council and a new executive. Let’s get the job done. That’s the executive’s point of view,” he said.
Council members could not be reached for comment Tuesday morning because they were in session.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org