GAITHERSBURG — With one-third of the state legislative session remaining, Gaithersburg officials were alarmed by the recently-introduced General Assembly bill to strip local governments of their authority to regulate placement of small cell towers.
Monday night Legislative Affairs Manager Monica Marquina joined lobbyist Moira Moynihan to brief Mayor Jud Ashman and the rest of the City Council on legislative issues of concern to the City.
The small cell bill – which is sponsored by Senate Finance Committee chairman Thomas Middleton (D-Charles County) and House Economic Matters Committee chairman Dereck Davis (D-Prince George’s) – would preempt local governments’ authority to set up permitting processes for placement of small cell towers and antennas. Telecommunications providers say the towers are necessary to provide adequate coverage for the forthcoming 5th-generation wireless networks, known as 5G.
“This bill is a doozy, it’s 22 pages long,” said Moynihan, who the City hired to lobby in Annapolis through her firm, Alexander and Cleaver. “It would prohibit local governments from entering into exclusive agreements for the location of small cell towers in the right of way. The bill exclusively permits wireless providers to co-locate small cell facilities...It authorizes the permitted use of the right of way and exempts them from being subject to local zoning review or approval.”
Moynihan noted a number of matters in which local governments would have no authority under the bill, such as the height of poles and various aspects of the permitting process.
Ashman agreed that the bill’s effects were quite clear, noting how one could summarize the bill very quickly and find that “it says that all local authority that we care about would be eliminated.”
“This is really outrageous,” said Councilmember Michael A. Sesma. “Any taxpayer should be outraged by the attempt to take authority from the local government, the government that’s closest to them and most responsive to their needs.”
Sesma noted that he had delivered a presentation on behalf of the National League of Cities on this issue in which he said that Gaithersburg had developed a process for telecommunications development that respected both public concerns and industry needs.
In response to a question by Councilmember Robert Wu as to the bill’s prospects, Moynihan said it was unlikely to pass in the current session.
“Process-wise, when you introduce a bill after the following deadline and when your bill is scheduled after the crossover deadline that usually says this bill is dead in the water,” Moynihan said. “But, in this case, just because it’s got the two committee chairmen behind it and because the Senate Finance Committee chairman worked on it, we’re going to take it very seriously.”
Marquina and Moynihan said that they would work with NLC and the National Association of Counties to oppose this bill, as well as conduct a public outreach campaign urging voters to express their concerns to elected officials.
Another issue of concern to the city is the restoration of highway user funds.
“As long as we’ve been working with you on this issue, we’ve had to come to you, hat in hand and say we tried our best,” Moynihan said. “This year something’s moving, which is great.”
Moynihan also briefed Ashman and the council on bill outlining a compromise in distribution of funds between Baltimore City, Maryland counties and municipalities supported by Delegate Kumar Barve, who represents Gaithersburg and chairs the House Environment and transportation Committee. The bill has already passed the House and was also likely pass in the Senate.,” she said.
Moynihan added that Governor Larry Hogan had proposed a significant increase in funds for school construction over last year’s figure. School construction has long been a priority in Gaithersburg, where student enrollment at several facilities, particularly elementary schools, is considerably over capacity.