Last Tuesday, dozens of residents rallied on the steps of the Montgomery County Council’s office building protesting the Council’s latest push to approve yet another policy that would fast track cell towers near homes and schools.
Proposed Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) 22-01 would allow utility poles to be topped with cell tower antennas or replaced with towers of unlimited height 30 feet from homes. The Montgomery County Coalition to Protect Neighborhoods, a coalition of community groups, urged the Council to listen to residents’ voices. Fox 5’s Sierra Fox covered the rally with a news story entitled “Residents Protest Cell Towers.”
County Executive Marc Elrich attended the rally and also spoke with the press. He stated that he had sent a memo to the Council asking them to delay consideration of ZTA 22-01. He reiterated there is neither legal justification nor practical need for the ZTA, and that its lax requirements could lead to an unrestrained proliferation of towers and equipment.
Addressing the rally, Nicole Williams, a Montgomery County resident said, “You know, I’ve grown to really love Montgomery County, and I thought it was going to be my forever home. But if this ZTA passes, I will have to put my health first and move.”
Residents have been fiercely opposed to the ZTA. The Montgomery County Coalition to Protect Neighborhoods started a letter-writing campaign and now hundreds of letters opposing ZTA 22-01 have been sent to each Councilmember.
ZTA 22-01 would reduce the setback distance for cell tower antennas on existing utility poles from 60’ to 30’ from homes, doubling the number of eligible utility poles in the County to over 60,000. The new bill would include multi-unit buildings in residential zones. ZTA 22-01 provides no limits on height, size, the number of poles or size of equipment, no notice, no appeals process even for the most vulnerable, no protections for schools, no monitoring of the levels of wireless radio frequency (RF) radiation emissions from wireless antennas, and no redress for the 20% estimated loss of property values for affected homes.
The residents argued that MoCo already has very permissive zoning for cell towers, including 5G, in residential zones, and extensive coverage in commercial and mixed use zones, so there is simply no need for ZTA 22-01. It’s a “solution” without a problem, but it will create many new problems.
"ZTA 22-01 is not needed, is not required by the FCC and will not reduce inequities in the digital divide,” stated Rick Meyer, Executive Director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Control of Cell Towers (MC4T.org)(@mc4torg). “Further, setbacks should not be reduced by the Council until the FCC takes action on RF emissions standards as mandated by the DC Court of Appeals.”
Another resident cited examples from an extensive body of published studies on the negative health effects linked to cell tower radiofrequency (RF) radiation including neurological disorders, cancer, infertility, and effects on children who medical doctors consider more vulnerable. She presented published research that recommends that RF exposure limits need to be several hundred times more protective for children, as their developing brains and bodies are less protected than adults.
“No US federal government agency has ever reviewed the body of scientific evidence on health effects of cell towers,” she continued, citing a recent court ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. The Court ruled against the FCC in favor of Environmental Health Trust et al, and found the FCC’s 26-year old outdated cell tower radiation limits had not been properly reviewed.
Another Montgomery County resident, who is a teacher, made an impassioned plea to the Council calling on them to acknowledge the controversial nature of these towers and pause 22-01 in order to honor not only the short-term harms, but also the long-term effects that may irreparably damage our next generation.
“The massive increase in EMFs and radiofrequency radiation from 5g will also be a disaster for wildlife, especially pollinators, bats, and migratory birds, all of which are already in steep decline,” stated Marion Edey, founder of the League of Conservation voters. “All living creatures have basic cellular processes which can be disrupted by electro-magnetic frequencies. But this is especially true for species which rely on these fields for orientation and navigation,” she said.
"Residents also spoke on a range of other reasons to oppose ZTA 22-01 including the legal and judicial basis for opposition to 22-01, lack of responsiveness of the Council to residents’ concerns, and real life examples of people harmed from RF exposure."
In spite of the community opposition to cell towers in front of homes, the Council has continued to push forward. The Planning Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee, chaired by Councilmember Riemer, the lead champion and sole sponsor of this misguided ZTA, voted to bring 22-01 to the full Council next Tuesday, October 18th with a vote slated for October 25th, the last meeting this session in which this Council would have authority to enact a ZTA.
The proliferation of towers will also increase energy demand (estimated at at least 10x more), contributing to climate change. Residents also stated that pushing 22-01 through this month would allow the Council to circumvent its own requirement effective January 2023 to conduct a Climate Assessment. They questioned why the Council which purports to protect the environment and address climate change would avoid such an important analysis.
The response of the Council President to the residents’ rally and objections to 22-01 is that it is needed to improve internet access to all communities and reduce the digital divide. This justification is unfounded according to a report of the Government Accounting Office and not substantiated by the Racial Equity and Social Justice (RESJ) statement by the Council’s own Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO). Their RESJ assessment did not find that 22-01 would have a positive net impact on racial equity and social justice in the County and "if ZTA 22-01 yielded negative health effects, it could potentially widen health disparities and thus negatively impact RESJ in the County."
“...5G deployment would likely exacerbate disparities in access to telecommunications services, known as the “digital divide,” stated the US Government Accountability Report on 5G, June 2020.
According to Dr. Peter Kahn, a former law professor and a Montgomery County resident, the County Council has provided shifting justifications for passing a series of zoning amendments and they have continually and ultimately misled residents. “It’s the proverbial monster under the bed – the justifications aren’t real. We are told by Councilmembers that this is just a simple technical fix to ensure that there aren’t a lot of new poles erected in the County. But since last year’s ZTA 19-07, there have been zero new poles. Rather, 22-01 would make at least thirty thousand more existing poles eligible for cell antennas throughout the County,” he said.
So, will the real reason for ZTA 22-01 please stand up? We haven’t heard it yet. The Council has a choice to make on 22-01. How shall the Council be remembered? What shall its legacy be–providing the biggest giveaway to the wireless industry at the expense of county residents? Or shall the Council’s legacy be providing a policy that is responsive to residents’ concerns and that locates cell towers in a sensible manner while protecting people and neighborhoods in Montgomery County?