Montgomery County Planning Board Supports Amendment for 5G Antennas

Montgomery County Planning Board Supports Amendment for 5G Antennas

Bill will need additional clarifications, staff members say

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5G tower

A small cell tower attached to a lamp post in Minneapolis, Minnesota

IMAGE VIA FLICKR: TONY WEBSTER (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Montgomery County Planning Board voted on Thursday to support a zoning amendment that loosens restrictions on 5G antennas, a small step forward for a bill more than a year in the making.

Council Member Hans Riemer introduced the new legislation in October, reigniting an issue his colleagues discussed, and tabled, last year. The zoning amendment would allow small cell antennas in residentially zoned neighborhoods as long as they replace an existing utility pole and stand at least 60 feet from a residential building.

Antennas would be allowed as a conditional use within 30 feet of a residential building if a hearing examiner rules they are needed to provide service or to reduce the visual impact of a new pole.

Locating an antenna within 30 feet of a home would require a public hearing and approval by a hearing examiner with the Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings.

“There’s somewhat of a sense of urgency when it comes to putting something like this in place,” Planner Coordinator Gregory Russ said during the board’s hearing. “Something that balances the issue of protecting neighborhoods with providing the technology that’s going to be necessary for businesses, or that citizens would like in their homes.”

5G antennas — also known as small cell towers — are often touted as the gateway to next-generation cellular technology, allowing faster internet speeds and greater connectivity.

They mark a significant shift from older cell towers — large-scale installations that can stretch 100 feet or higher. Phone companies such as Verizon say 5G networks require smaller equipment installed closer together and lower to the ground to build efficient coverage areas.

To build those networks, companies are seeking to install 5G antennas on public utilities across the country. Often, the infrastructure falls in residential areas, Riemer said, where there are a high number of existing utility poles.

“And our current zoning code requires [cell] antennas to be at least 300 feet from a residential property,” he said in a phone interview on Thursday. “It’s outdated, and it’s a serious restriction when it comes to deploying this technology.”

The prospect of 5G towers in residential neighborhoods has been hotly contested by many community groups. But Riemer has repeatedly urged the council to adopt a bill that would give local authorities more control over their eventual installation.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission issued a ruling that makes it harder for local governments to block the towers. If Montgomery County doesn’t pass its own regulations on 5G, Riemer has argued, cell companies could ask federal agencies to intervene.

While the Planning Board generally supported the amendment, staff members sent several comments and questions to the council’s Planning, Housing, & Economic Development (PHED) committee.

Some of the suggested changes were procedural, including a request for the council to clarify how much information it would need from the planning staff during the conditional approval process.

“The [amendment] requires a decision on a small cell tower application within 90 days,” Russ told the board. “It’s a much shorter process. And because it’s such a short turnaround, we need to clarify: What’s the information you’re going to be asking us for and what’s the time frame for us to get it back to you?”

The amendment should also be clarified to establish the maximum allowable size of small cell tower units, which are affixed to utility poles to provide service. The county’s current zoning code allows a unit of up to 6 cubic feet, Russ said, but the FCC set a maximum size of 3 cubic feet.

Riemer, the chair of the PHED committee, said the questions would be discussed in future work sessions on the bill, scheduled to begin in late January. The council will hold a public hearing on the amendment at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the Council Office Building in Rockville.

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