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By Neal Earley
ROCKVILLE — Without the votes to get his zoning text amendment through, County Council President Hans Riemer (D-at large), dropped the ZTA off the agenda Tuesday that would have facilitated the deployment of small cell antennas and towers, leaving the issue in limbo.
But the ZTA proposed by Riemer that would have made it easier for telecommunication companies to place their small cell antennas on existing utility poles, is now indefinitely delayed as he failed to find enough votes before the Oct. 31 deadline.
While Riemer scheduled his ZTA for a vote at two separate Council meetings, irreconcilable differences among members of the County Council about what constituted reasonable and legal regulations killed any prospect of passing the ZTA.
“Over the course of the last few months, this Council has made significant progress on this issue; however, several changes proposed by my colleagues would have undermined the central purpose of the zoning measure,” Riemer said. “In my view, our County needs to embrace wireless infrastructure, just as we embrace water, power, and transportation infrastructure.
For more than two years, members of the community and County Council have debated the best way to regulate small cell antennas and towers, which telecommunication companies argue are needed to keep up with the growing demand for internet service and to eventually implement 5G service.
While the County Council was able to pass a ZTA that made it easier for telecommunication companies to place the small cell antennas in commercial zones, residents object to ZTA 18-11 which would have made it much easier for companies to place the small cell antennas on poles in residential neighborhoods near homes. It was a two-year fight for residents who were motivated by concerns about local control of equipment near their homes and worries that the small cell antennas emit harmful radiation.
“This really proves that the County Council was putting interests of residents first, and not the interests of the wireless companies. I think we are really, really happy about that,” said Will Meyers, from MC4T, an organization that lobbied against the ZTA.
For a County Council often unified, the debate over small cell antennas split Council members as they debated over the best course of action. Council member Tom Hucker (D-5), offered an amendment, which would have classified the towers as “conditional use” meaning the County’s hearing examiner would have reviewed applications for the antennas. Hucker’s amendment, which would have changed the setback of the small cell antennas to 40 to 60 feet from homes, with an exception of 30 feet if necessary.
In addition to Riemer, Council members Nancy Floreen (D-at large), Craig Rice (D-2), George Leventhal (D-at large) voiced their support for the ZTA.
County Executive Ike Leggett said in a statement Tuesday that he was disappointed that the County failed to come to a compromise, and the failure of not having a ZTA to facilitate the deployment of the towers will leave the County vulnerable to preemption by either the state or federal government.
“We have failed to adequately protect our communities and neighborhoods,” Leggett said. “We now run a much greater risk of the State – and federal government – preempting any local say on the terms and conditions of small cell tower placement in our neighborhoods.”
Outside the County Council building Tuesday, residents who protested the ZTA, cheered and thanked Hucker for his amendment to the bill.
For Riemer, preemption was a major issue.
Under federal law, local jurisdiction cannot prohibit the implementation of wireless technology. While local jurisdictions can regulate wireless technology, they cannot do anything that prohibits it. County staff has argued that not passing a ZTA or passing a ZTA with Hucker’s amendments would leave the County vulnerable in a federal lawsuit from telecommunications companies.
However Clifford L. Royalty, an attorney for the County, agreed that Hucker’s amendment could service challenge in federal court if the County hired additional hearing examiners and followed federal regulations on small cell antennas.