2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Cell tower debate was illuminating window into local legislation, leadership

As county commits to 5G expansion, some lessons on how people in power operate

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There’s a lot to learn from Tuesday’s 7-2 vote by the County Council to approve 5G cell tower proliferation in Montgomery County.

• We learned that towers in residential neighborhoods can be 30 feet from homes and that there will be no public process (i.e., hearings) to object to them at that distance.

• We learned that no one values the public voice more than Council Member Sidney Katz.

Katz proposed a change to the zoning text amendment (ZTA 19-07) at a July 13 council meeting (watch starting at about 1:13:50) recommending a pause in the process to convene a work group with members of the public, the council and the industry to hash through fact and fiction — positive and negative impacts to residents.

The work group (through a “charrette” process) is a dog-eared page from the Katz playbook. He used it often, and successfully, as mayor of Gaithersburg.

County Executive Marc Elrich proposed a work group, as well, in a late June memo to the council, and deserves credit. Credit also goes to Evan Glass, who talked briefly at the July 13 meeting in favor of a work group, but ultimately voted for the ZTA without that amendment in place.

• We learned that Council Member Will Jawando is not afraid to change his mind.

Despite visible confidence in the ZTA leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, Jawando upheld the precautionary principle and broke ranks with fellow Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee members as he voted against the ZTA. In his remarks, Jawando cited ambiguity around health concerns and read a warning from the American Cancer Society’s website (starting at about 3:21:55 in the meeting) to meeting-goers.

• We learned that PHED Chair Hans Riemer has succumbed to using various media platforms as bully pulpits.

On Facebook, he refers to “tin-foil health concerns” when, in fact, the World Health Organization deems RF radiation (like that emitted from 5G towers) a possible Group 2B carcinogen.

He likened 5G opponents to “anti-vaxxers” on The Politics Hour with Kojo Nmandi (July 9, 2021; starting at about 40:45) and then again at Tuesday’s vote (discussion of the vote starts at about 3:08:30). And in a victory-lap e-blast to constituents on July 28, he jabs, “If you’ve seen some alarmist messages on your local listserve … [y]ou might also enjoy this article about how the KGB is funding disinformation about 5G.”

Misinformation, in fact, is a petard on which Riemer has often fallen.

Two examples include the claim that 5G requires close proximity towers; the other is that the county lacks 5G. In fact, Verizon’s own website states, “the 5G Ultra Wideband network’s signal can reach up to 1,500 feet without obstructions,” and its coverage map shows Montgomery County aglow in 5G connectivity as we speak.

• We learned that the PHED committee lacks a consistent, disciplined and transparent way to review the science.

Riemer continues to parrot industry brochure brag while fellow PHED committee member Andrew Friedson sits by, failing to deliver on a campaign promise he made in 2018.

A campaign statement found on his official website said, “As senior policy advisor and deputy chief of staff for the Comptroller of Maryland, [Friedson] has scrutinized public agencies and reviewed billions in government contracts to ensure transparency and accountability ….” It’s surprising and disappointing that he did not demand a principled review process here.

• We learned that the council is too proud to borrow from a neighbor.

In 2017, the city of Gaithersburg created its own cell tower ordinance. It is one of the five municipalities in the county that has independent authority to do so.

As a resident of Gaithersburg myself (but an advocate for children countywide), I urged the County Council on more than one occasion to follow Gaithersburg’s lead by creating a tiered system whereby cell towers can reside in the rights of way of the larger roads, but not on smaller residential streets.

Its response has been that this leaves the county open to lawsuits for the effective prohibition of service. Yet, according to Gaithersburg’s city attorney, there has been no legal action against the city since the adoption of the its small cell ordinances and regulations in 2017.

• We learned that if a thousand residents oppose a zoning text amendment long enough, they will be punished for it.

When the 5G debate began in a 2016 Ridgeview Middle School cafeteria town hall-style public hearing, the ZTA included 60-foot setbacks from homes. Now, it prescribes that towers can be as close as 30 feet, and the document stripped out any public process to oppose a tower lurking outside your bedroom window, or worse, your child’s bedroom window.

• We learned that the county is not prioritizing its new climate action plan.

Section G-8 of the plan (on p. 135 of the PDF) stipulates “a climate impact statement to evaluate all pending bills, budgets, plans, and land use decisions.”

This action is not a current mandate, but goes into effect this fall, according to the Department of Environmental Protection, which is currently staffing up to handle these important supplemental documents. Had the council postponed the vote, we all would have benefitted from a careful analysis of 5G’s impact to our natural surroundings.

• Finally, we learned that seven of the nine council members need to brush up on their French. The crest that emblazons the council headquarters and stamps many of their Zoom backdrops reads “Gardez Bien.” Translation: “Guard Well.”

It can be argued that democracy, effective representation and public safety are less “bien” with the passage of ZTA 19-07.

Lisa Cline is a resident of Gaithersburg, an avid child safety advocate and a writer.