ROCKVILLE — After more than a year of delays and revisions, the Council and telecommunications companies have finally gotten their way regarding small cell antennas.
On Tuesday, the Council unanimously approved a zoning text amendment clearing the way of the use of small cell telecommunication antennas in commercial zones.
“This is really intended to make some very modest changes to reflect the reality of our world,” said Council member Nancy Floreen (D-at large).
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.
The new ZTA will clear the way for small cell antennas in commercial and mixed-use zones.
Public opposition to the poles and antennas stems from residents’ concerns over the antennas’ possible effects on public health, as some residents claim the radiation emitted by small cell antennas could be hazardous. Telecommunications companies argue the antennas – which they say are necessary to keep up with the demand for wireless internet service brought on by the proliferation of smartphones and tablets – are safe.
Riemer, the ZTA’s sponsor, has 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.
“It does not change any requirement for what a pole would do in front of somebody’s house,” said Jeff Zyontz, a senior legislative analyst with the County Council.
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 greenlight construction of the poles and their antennas.
For more than a year, residents have protested proposals by the Council to change County zoning law in order to facilitate the expansion of small cell antennas. While a previous attempt to change the zoning law did not pass, this latest attempt is a compromise as Riemer and other members of the Council have warned if they do not act, others will.
“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,” said Riemer when he first announced the bill back in February.
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 pre-empt any such regulations at the state level.