County Council Moves to Ease Restrictions for Small Antennas to Boost Wireless Coverage

County Council Moves to Ease Restrictions for Small Antennas to Boost Wireless Coverage

Recent proposal for similar equipment stirred outrage in City of Gaithersburg

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Example of a pole-mounted small antenna for cellphone and wireless service

City of Gaithersburg

A battle could be brewing over small cellphone and wireless antennas in residential areas of Montgomery County.

On Tuesday, County Council President Nancy Floreen introduced a zoning text amendment that would allow companies installing the equipment on poles shorter than 30 feet to forgo the county’s conditional use approval process.

Floreen said Tuesday afternoon that with the demand increasing for better wireless service and a slew of applications for the small antennas being received by the county, it makes sense to ease the zoning restriction so that applicants don’t have to go through the county’s court-like hearing examiner process for each and every pole.

County officials say approximately 170 of the small antenna requests currently are being reviewed by the county’s Tower Commission, which must approve all applications for cellphone towers.

“That’s the question. Do we want to have hundreds of public hearings on what won’t be the kind of eyesore that people are usually concerned with?” Floreen said.

The small antennas, which in the county are almost primarily installed by Houston-based company Crown Castle for various telecommunications companies, are sometimes placed on existing telephone or other utility poles.

But in some neighborhoods with underground utilities and no poles, the county’s existing zoning ordinance requires the conditional use approval for every new pole, no matter its height.

A proposal by Crown Castle to install a network of small antennas in the City of Gaithersburg led to a packed April public hearing in which many residents spoke up against the idea for fear the antennas would emit dangerous radiation and harm property values. The city put out a frequently-asked-question sheet on small cell facilities in May and none have been permitted or built yet.

The small cell sites have led to similar controversies in communities around the country, including in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Until recently, most cellphone service was provided using large antennas mounted on towers at heights of 100 feet or more. Those antennas served large areas. But with the anticipated increase in demand for wireless service on cellphones, tablets and other mobile devices, providers such as Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint are looking for additional facilities to serve smaller areas.

Some of the small cell antennas already exist in the Brickyard area of Potomac.

Sue Present, a Silver Spring resident who is part of a group that successfully opposed a large cellphone tower at Cresthaven Elementary School, wrote a letter to Floreen and other council members in which she urged them not to approve Floreen’s proposed zoning change.

“I think that the opposition might vary from place to place. It may depend on precisely where the cell towers are and how much of an effect they have on a particular residence,” Present told Bethesda Beat Tuesday. “This change would take away the conditional use process where residents would have the opportunity to be engaged and be able to say something about it or have a review instead of having no recourse whatsoever.”

Floreen said she “wouldn’t be surprised” to receive opposition to her proposal during a July 19 public hearing, but that she doesn’t think small antennas placed on street light poles or telephone poles that may otherwise already exist in a county right-of-way will have a major impact on homes.

Even if the proposed zoning amendment is approved, the small antenna applications would still be subject to review by the Tower Commission and applicants would be required to get permits from the county’s Department of Permitting Services. The county’s Department of Transportation would also review the proposals since the applications are for poles in the county right-of-way.

The proposed zoning text amendment also includes requirements stating how far the poles must be set back from the nearest home and restricts a tower to no more than 8 inches in diameter.

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