2021 | Government

Elrich wants task force looking into zoning amendment allowing 5G cell tower technology

Riemer seeks vote on issue, to increase broadband access nationwide

share this
montgomery-county-logo

County Executive Marc Elrich wants the County Council to pause its deliberations on a zoning text amendment that would establish guidelines for 5G small cell antennas, in order to allow a task force to further study the issue.

Elrich’s office sent a memo to council members Tuesday about the proposal, outlining multiple concerns including how the public hearing process would occur for residents who object to the small cell antennas in their neighborhoods.

5G networks require smaller equipment overall and can be placed closer together to create 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 infrastructure. Overall, it provides greater speeds for higher amounts of data transfer than 4G technology.

Elrich said in an interview one of his concerns is that county officials should wait to see how the Federal Communications Commission rules on cases involving 5G antennas, which could determine where those devices need to be placed.

According to the memo, Elrich’s task force would consist of residents, and representatives from local industries, homeowner/tenant associations and nonprofits, along with support staff from his office and the County Council.

County Council Member Hans Riemer, who is running against Elrich in the Democratic primary for county executive, has spent years trying to implement the zoning change to expand 5G coverage.

The memo sends a clear message about Elrich’s stance on the issue, Riemer said in an interview.

“This is just outright opposition and hostility in the form of a task force intended to delay action forever,” Riemer said. 

He added the zoning text amendment would help close the digital divide between homeowners and tenants who have access to high-speed Internet and those who don’t. During the pandemic, thousands of Montgomery County Public School students needed to take home a wireless hotspot device in order to complete work, he said. 

The 5G cell towers would also be able to solve connectivity problems in rural areas, where it’s harder to extend current high-speed Internet networks, he said.

Elrich said he is concerned about how many of the antennas could pop up in residential neighborhoods from not one, but three wireless carriers: AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. If each carrier puts their antennas on different poles, that could mean a lot end up being built, Elrich said.

“The telecom towers that serve us now are well-scattered throughout the county. But now, we’re talking about: do I need them every 150 feet? Do I need them as close as 30 feet to my house?”

Council members are scheduled to debate an amendment from Council Member Andrew Friedson to the overall proposal, which states that wireless carriers may only construct new poles if there is no existing utility or streetlight pole within 150 feet of a proposed location.

Under the current proposal, residents can file an objection if a new pole is proposed within 300 feet of their property. A notice would be sent out to property owners and civic associations within that radius. 

If there are objections, a hearing would be held in front of a hearing examiner in the Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings.

The council is scheduled to discuss the zoning text amendment, including Friedson’s proposal, on July 13. It’s unclear whether a final vote will occur before or after the council’s summer recess, scheduled from Aug. 2 to Sept. 12.

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