The Montgomery County Council is again considering another zoning text amendment that will make way for a series of telecommunication antennas that have been the subject of controversy around the County.
On Tuesday, Council President Hans Riemer (D-At-Large), introduced ZTA 18-02 on behalf of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). If passed, it would amend county zoning laws to make it easier to erect small cell antennas in commercial zones. The bill’s introduction marks a change in policy for the Council after similar legislation that would have also facilitated the placement of hundreds of small cell antennas on both commercial and residential property was put on hold after meeting significant resistance from the public.
“So we are very concerned about preserving local control and it makes a big difference if the community is at the table enforcing co-location,” Riemer said.
Since discussion of the change to zoning laws began in the summer of 2016, some residents have feared that it would allow the numerous telecommunications companies that have filed hundreds of applications to place metal poles and antennas throughout the County to locate their small cell antennas close to homes. At present, the law requires an individual public hearing on each proposed pole.
Public opposition to the poles and antennas poles stems from residents’ concerns over the antennas’ effects on public health, as some residents claim the radiation emitted by small cell antennas placed close to homes could be hazardous. Telecommunications companies argue the antennas – which they say necessary to keep up with the demand for wireless internet service brought on by the proliferation of smart phones and tablets – are safe.
“The ZTA I am proposing works to allow more deployments in commercial/residential zones, allows deployment of antennas that can support four carriers, and allows deployment of antennas on lower-height buildings,” said County Executive Ike Leggett. “It does not change, and leaves for further discussion, changes to deployments in residential areas.”
Speaking at his weekly news conference, Riemer argued that the latest bill is a compromise, as it would take into account the concerns of residents who are fearful that small cell antennas would emit dangerous radiation close to their homes or degrade the look of their neighborhoods, while still meeting the needs of telecommunications companies that need to expand their wireless networks’ bandwidth.
Since the debate began in the summer of 2016, Council members have warned residents the ultimate decision on the small cell antennas may not be up to them because federal law allows the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt local zoning regulations and green-light construction of the poles and their antennas. Riemer and other members of the County Council met with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai last summer to discuss the issue, and came away with the impression that under Pai, the FCC will use its authority without County approval. Riemer and Leggett also noted that telecommunication companies will push for legislation in Annapolis to preempt any such regulations at the state level.
“In order to preserve local control, we need to use our local control and so the zoning change that is before you begins the process of reformulating how infrastructure will be deployed and how the demand for data can be met in the future,” Riemer said.
A public hearing on the ZTA is scheduled for March 20.