ROCKVILLE — Warning that the federal government will take away local control from the County over how it regulates telecommunications towers, County Council President Hans Riemer (D-at large) on Tuesday introduced a zoning text amendment that will help facilitate the expansion of cellphone antennas in the County.
While the County Council introduced and debated a similar bill about a year ago, with members of the Council saying telecommunication companies needed to deploy the small-cell antennas to expand 4G and cellphone service throughout the County, many residents balked at the idea, claiming the antennas are an eyesore or that the radiation they emit may pose a danger to public health.
“We’re very concerned that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is moving forward to try to preempt our control over our own roadways and our own, you know, decisions on how infrastructure should be cited,” Riemer said.
Currently, county zoning requires that the type of poles telecommunications companies want to place need to go through an individual public hearing process for each pole.
The proposed ZTA would incentivize placing the small-cell antennas on existing utility poles and on the tall light poles in the County’s rights-of-way without a public hearing. However, the ZTA would keep the public hearing process for small-cell antennas that are smaller than 22 feet, which are typically placed in residential communities with underground utilities.
In a letter to Riemer, County Executive Ike Leggett called the ZTA a fair compromise between the demand of 4G and cellphone coverage and the concerns of residents.
“Retaining a process to allow greater residential input into placement and visual appearance, while allowing streamlined access to taller poles, strikes a reasonable balance between the concerns of residents and our interest in ensuring access to robust wireless broadband services,” Leggett wrote.
While the County Council attempted to pass a similar ZTA a year ago, it was eventually withdrawn after public pressure. This time around, Riemer believes the new ZTA gives residents more say over the placement of some antennas, warning that the federal government might step in and take away local control from the County.
While FCC officials have not openly said they would force the County to allow telecommunications companies to implement their small-cell antennas, that is the implication County leaders got after several meetings with the FCC.
“If we want to have the maximum influence over how this infrastructure is deployed then we need to take action ourselves to establish those rules and those procedures,” Riemer said.