A standoff between the Montgomery County Council and county executive came to an end Tuesday as the council formally solidified the locations of 22 towers needed to complete a new emergency communication system.
For several months, the executive branch and County Council members have been at odds over the location of two new tower sites while the current system faltered, suffering several outages since May.
County Executive Marc Elrich directed project leaders to reconsider the location of the sites — one at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and the Intercounty Connector in Olney, the other on the Bretton Woods Golf Course site in Seneca – amid an outcry from community members about what they feel was a lack of transparency in the selection process.
The County Council, led by Vice President Sidney Katz and Council member Hans Riemer pushed back, saying that reconsidering the two sites could delay the implementation of the system by at least one year. Riemer and Katz first voiced concern about the emergency communication system in April.
This month, Elrich backtracked and agreed to collocate a tower on the Olney site with a state radio system, but said he wanted to continue looking for an alternate Bretton Woods site.
On Tuesday, Dale Tibbits, a special assistant to Elrich, told the County Council the executive would agree to the final site with “extreme reluctance” because it is not possible to prepare an alternate site before December 2020, the deadline outlined by the County Council.
“We have run out of time because the process to research, finalize the location, permit, build and test this alternative site is predicted to take more than 18 months,” Tibbits said. “At this late date, the alternative site cannot be guaranteed to be ready.”
The council on Tuesday unanimously passed a budget amendment updating the definition of the emergency communication system modernization project in the county’s six-year capital improvements program. The definition now includes specific locations of the 22 proposed tower sites.
The council’s vote would have forced Elrich to introduce a budget amendment, subject to the council’s approval, for any alternate tower locations.
The current, aging system attracted county leaders’ attention after a 12-hour “major disruption” over Mother’s Day weekend in May. At times, the outage knocked out about 75% of the available radio channels police, firefighters and rescue crews use to communicate.
The system has suffered several shorter, less severe disruptions since, and agencies are creating backup plans in case the system experiences a “catastrophic failure” before a new system is in place.
Before the meeting, members of the Greater Olney Civic Association and Brookmanor Estates gathered outside the County Council building to protest the location of the Olney tower.
Opponents said the tower will hurt nearby property values and could have harmful health effects.
John Seng, a resident of Brookmanor Estates, near the tower site, said the group has budgeted $20,000 for legal representation to challenge the Olney tower.
“The idea that someone can come along and construct a communications tower with less notice than trash notice or leaf pickup … we’re upset with this process,” Seng said.
Riemer said he and other County Council members would have supported exploring alternate tower locations if it did not delay the new tower network.
“I believe all of these communities prize public safety and … all value knowing when there is an emergency, our first responders can respond every time and the equipment will work every time,” Riemer said. “I believe strongly this is a response to the county’s public safety needs.”
The new 22-tower system will provide radio coverage for 98% of the county and replace an 11-tower system that covers about 80% of the county.
Staff writer Dan Schere contributed to this story.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org