County Council holds public hearing on small cell tower expansion

MoCo LogoROCKVILLE — Tuesday night’s public hearing on another bill to facilitate the expansion of small cell antennas was the second go-around and a familiar story for all those involved.

In March, Council President Hans Riemer (D-at large), at the request of County Executive Ike Leggett, introduced a new bill, Zoning Text Amendment 18-02 that would make it easier to place small cell antennas in urban areas. Unlike the previous bill, which the Council did not vote on after public protest, ZTA18-02 only facilities the expansion of small cell antennas in urban areas, meaning the current zoning regulations requiring individual public hearings for placing poles that carry the antennas the same.

Edward Donohue, a representative from T-Mobile who testified at the County Council Tuesday night said the data demands for the first quarter of 2018 have exceeded all the combined data demands from 2012 to 2014.

“There’s an ever-increasing demand on infrastructure in the County,” Donohue said. “And additional sites are really needed in order to address the capacity and coverage issues.”

A member of the County Council proposes a bill to allow for the mass proliferation of small cell antennas to accommodate the need for expanding strain on cell phones’ wireless networks as demand for data grows. A large public outcry ensues, where people claim the antennas are intrusive to homes and emit potentially harmful radiation. And the County government responds saying their hands are tied, because the federal government will preempt them if they do not act.

“The Council is preempted by federal law from regulating on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions,” Riemer said.

Riemer admitted in an interview with the Sentinel, that though the bill he is sponsoring will only facilitate the expansion of small cell towers in urban areas, it is likely sometime in the near future the small cell towers will find their way to residential neighborhoods.

The packed Council building filled with residents against the antennas applauding each resident who delivered a sharp rebuke of the proposed bill. Among the main concerns of residents is the potential health effects of the antennas, which emit a type of radiation that some, believe could cause negative health effects.

While federal law prohibits local jurisdictions like Montgomery County from regulating small cell towers based on potential health effects, the radio-frequency radiation that the small cell towers emits remained a primary concern for those who testified against the bill Tuesday night.

North Potomac resident Donna Baron sighted a scientific study, which she said confirmed that lab rats exposed to such radiation were diagnosed with rare forms of cancer.

“We do not consent to be human subjects used as laboratory rats in this radiation experiment,” Baron said.

Sue Present argued that the antennas would harm property values, as many of the protruding antennas could be placed close to homes.

“A ZTA should not sacrifice safety, aesthetics or property value. It should insure transparency, proper notice and consideration for residents’ concerns,” Present said.

For more than a year the Council has tried to reform its zoning laws in order to allow telecommunications companies to set up the small cell antennas in the County. Telecommunication providers argue the antennas are necessary to accommodate an increasingly expanding network of cellphones and tablets and to usher in fifth generation or 5G that will allow for faster internet speeds.

Donohue, the representative from T-Mobile that testified at the meeting, said Amazon required that its future site for its new headquarters have access to a 5G infrastructure, something partially driving County interest for the antennas as the County is among the final 20 potential destination spots for Amazon’s new headquarters.

However, even with the push from telecommunications companies, the Council has been slow to push through a ZTA on the issue. Last summer, Riemer along with Leggett and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-8) met with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on the issue.

From the meeting Riemer said he got the impression that the FCC will use its federal authority to preempt County control and impose the cell antennas anyway.



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