GAITHERSBURG – A proposed telecommunications development has sparked opposition from Gaithersburg residents, many of whom visited City Hall on Monday night to voice their displeasure to Mayor Jud Ashman and the City Council.
On June 20 last year, the city adopted revisions to its telecommunications ordinances. This was done to account for dramatic changes in the industry since the city’s last revisions in 1997. Among the revisions adopted were provisions for the construction of small cell facilities, structures that employ optical repeating equipment to provide faster data coverage for cellphone and mobile-device users.
At Monday night’s work session, Deputy City Manager Dennis Enslinger, Public Works Engineering Services Division Chief Ollie Mumpower and Deputy City Attorney Frank Johnson presented Ashman and the council with their staff’s research and recommendations for the construction of small cell towers in the right of way on public streets. The city staff worked with a provider, the Houston-based company crown castle, to develop possible designs and sites for towers in the city.
Numerous residents attended the session to express concerns about the possible adverse effects of the proposed towers on public health and safety and property values. The council chambers were packed; several attendees were required to wait in the upstairs galley and watch the meeting on closed-circuit television before coming downstairs to testify.
Vassilos Magginas played an instrumental role in organizing opposition in the Westleigh neighborhood, where three of the proposed small tower sites are located.
“Why, after 40 years of supporting the city of Gaithersburg and paying high taxes, does the Westleigh community deserve this?” Magginas asked in his testimony. “Last minute, over the weekend, we all came together as one voice, collected 148 signatures for this petition, representing 76 percent of our residents. The petition states ‘We, the residents of the Westleigh Development, strongly oppose the installation of these facilities as they devalue our properties, are unsafe, are visually appalling, and do not belong in our small residential development.’”
Magginas’ wife, Joanne, also testified on Monday.
“We were never warned or offered an explanation as to how our development was chosen, nor how the site was chosen for this cell tower, literally right outside our bedroom window,” Joanne said. “As a homeowner, I request all three cell towers be moved to other, more suitable locations outside the Westleigh community.”
Aaron Rosenzweig, a Westleigh resident who launched the website www.teamgaithersburg.org to increase public knowledge of important issues in the city, asked in his testimony if Ashman and the members of the council would be willing to have small cell towers installed on their own properties. In a subsequent email, Rosenzweig also suggested that construction of small cell towers might be met with civil disobedience by Gaithersburg citizens. He noted that citizens in La Jolla, California, had physically blocked the construction of Crown Castle facilities.
More than a dozen city residents testified on Monday, with many expressing concern that the Federal Communications Commission might overrule the city to mandate the towers’ construction, and expressing displeasure at the lack of public notice for the work session.
In their responses, city officials stressed that no arrangements have been finalized and that they would take public opinion into consideration.
“We need to consult with our legal team before deciding on any next steps,” Ashman said. “We are committed to an open and fair process in Gaithersburg, and in order to move that process forward, the Council and I need more information.”
Council member Neil Harris, who worked in the telecommunications industry for several years, was absent Monday night because he was in Budapest on a business trip, but watched the work session and comments via live feed.
I agree that short notice was provided before this meeting, although it seems to be enough to get you all there, thanks to your own efforts,” Harris said. “I will work with the staff to continue to make the point that we need to do better in our city’s communication …many of you expressed concerns over being brought in at the eleventh hour in this process. This is actually more like the second hour of a long process, with the first spent by staff alone. Staff typically works through any potential issues like this before presenting information in a work session to the mayor, council, and citizenry. We had been told there was some sort of discussion coming on small cell towers, the specific were not available to us until days before the meeting, and the details about a proposed pilot in specific residential neighbors was a surprise prior discussions before the mayor and council had focused on hiding micro cells in commercial buildings, to the best of my memory. I don’t blame staff for this — clearly they had to make a call about when was the right time with sufficient information to open a sensitive subject to us all. There will be many more meetings, assuming the vendor presses forward in light of the clear message you sent last evening. Small cell towers are an emerging technology trend being dealt with all over the country. Now it’s our turn.”
“In order for a telecommunications company to install small cell facilities in the public right-of-way they would need to enter into a Right-of-Way Use Agreement with the city,” said City Attorney N. Lynn Board. “This is an agreement the city requires for any public utility or service provider to enter into prior to performing work in the right-of-way. In addition, the company would need to apply for and obtain a permit for each installation. With regard to grounds the city may have to block construction, that depends on the application received from the telecommunications company. The city has not yet received an application, and there are two federal laws that may impact the city’s decision, the 1996 Telecommunications Act and the 2012 Spectrum Act. Each of these Acts has different standards and criteria that must be used in reviewing an application. Dependent on the specific application received, the criteria for review would be determined.”
Board said that, in the hypothetical event of acts of civil disobedience against the construction of the small cell towers, the penalty for malicious destruction of property valued $1,000 or more, would be up to three years imprisonment and/or a fine not to exceed $2,500.”