2021 | Government

Most council members support zoning amendment allowing 5G towers

Katz expressed concerns about placement, health effects of bill

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Most of the Montgomery County Council supports a zoning amendment to allow 5G antennas in residential neighborhoods throughout the county.

Council Member Hans Riemer has spent about five years working on the issue, and has argued that small cell antennas provide better internet service for those without broadband or fiber cable in their homes.

Riemer and his colleagues discussed the proposal Tuesday, as the amendment might finally reach a final vote in the coming months.

Another work session is scheduled for July 13. A vote could occur the next time it appears on the council agenda. The council’s summer recess is from Aug. 2 to Sept. 12. 

In March, the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee passed several amendments to Riemer’s proposal. Riemer chairs that committee. The changes were:

  • Reduce the setback for placing the antennas from 60 to 30 feet
  • Change the conditional use process for setbacks less than 30 feet. Those would still require a public hearing in which neighbors could object to a proposed location. But appeals would leapfrog the county’s Board of Appeals and go directly to the county’s Circuit Court 
  • There would be “a waiver and objection” process in which property owners within 300 feet of a proposed antenna would be notified of any proposals 
  • Prevent wireless companies from placing poles less than 150 feet apart

Riemer said during Tuesday’s council meeting that Montgomery County needs to act quickly to allow 5G technology, to spur job creation in that field and allow internet access to residents who don’t have it and need it.

“This zoning change is really about whether Montgomery County, which is one of the leading scientific counties in the world, will embrace technology,” Riemer said.

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. 

Multiple council members agreed that some change is needed to end the digital divide between more rural and urban communities, along with richer versus poorer communities.

Council Member Nancy Navarro said the issue has had a long, controversial history. Some community members have strongly opposed any 5G cell towers and antennas, stating they will have harmful health effects

Residents have argued that 5G antennas emit radio frequency waves that could cause cancer, autism, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. They’ve previously cited 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. 

Multiple health organizations, however, have disputed the claim of negative health effects.

The National Cancer Institute states 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.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Navarro said the pandemic has shown the need for 5G technology. It’s also shown the inequities regarding those who have access to new technology and those who don’t, she added.

“The ones that will suffer the most, if we are not serious about opportunities or providing access to opportunities, will undoubtedly be a lot of our low-income residents … [and] many of them are people of color,” Navarro said.

Council Member Craig Rice said he’s personally dealt with internet connectivity problems during the past year-and-a-half, living in Darnestown.

The new 5G technology makes it possible for rural areas to receive access to high-speed internet, where it’s too expensive to extend cable networks, Rice said.

“This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky ideology,” Rice said. “This is something that is before us right now. And if we don’t move, and if we don’t ensure that our residents have that option for connectivity, we are doing a disservice to our residents.”

Sidney Katz was the lone council member to express concerns about the proposed amendment.

In an interview, he said he’s concerned that companies who build 5G antennas and poles might focus on serving urban areas more than the county’s agricultural reserve, a more rural part of the county.

“We know the ag reserve has had real problems with cellphone [service] and being involved on Zoom calls and whatnot, and I would like to know whether the industry would be committed to putting in these towers, these cellphone towers first, where we’re having these issues,” Katz said.

He is also concerned about potential health effects, given that 5G towers will be much lower to the ground versus 4G antennas, which are on top of tall buildings or higher in the air. 

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