GAITHERSBURG – At a public hearing Monday night, Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman and the City Council heard staff recommendations regarding proposed changes in ordinances governing the construction of small cell towers in the city’s right-of-ways.
Deputy City Manager Dennis Enslinger, Assistant City Attorney Frank Johnson, and Joe Van Eaton of the law firm Best Best & Krieger, LLP, reviewed the proposed modifications, which have been discussed with such developers as Crown Castle and AT&T in response to recent changes in the telecommunications industry and FCC regulations.
The proposed modifications would allow developers greater flexibility.
“The most-significant proposed change is in terms of cell tower equipment housing,” Enslinger said. “The current volume is 2.8 cubic feet. The proposed change would expand that to 12 cubic feet.”
“I’m disappointed that we’re allowing expansion in the size of these facilities,” said City Council Member Michael A. Sesma. “Typically, when there are improvements to technology, equipment gets smaller, not larger.”
A number of city residents voiced opposition to the proposed changes.
“Twelve cubic feet is the size of [a] chest style free-standing freezer; 16 cubic feet is the size of the trunk of my car. Imagine those junking up our roads and sidewalks,” said city resident Lisa Cline. “While increasing equipment housing by 328 percent is of great concern, it also concerns me that the public has no direct line to the vendor, Crown Castle. As primary stakeholders, we should be at the cell tower table, not just at this podium for three minutes.”
Cline advocated the establishment of a task force to examine the benefits, risks and mechanics of small cell construction.
“I think the City Council has been great on this issue so far; I just don’t think they have all the facts,” Cline said.
“We recommend that the city not entertain changes and amendments to existing regulations, but instead, demand that the cellular industry and FCC come up with a comprehensive plan to address basic community concerns first, then proceed with an engineered plan and procedure to possibly install such facilities in strategic locations which are acceptable to communities,” said Vassilos Magginas, a resident of the Westleigh community. “Working in this direction, localities, communities, the cellular industry, and state and federal regulators can work for the same goal.”
“Your cell tower zoning helped the citizens of Montgomery County,” said Robert Janku, another Westleigh resident. “Saying that the City of Gaithersburg had banned cell towers in front of residential homes with all underground utilities made a powerful statement to the Montgomery County Council members.”
Janky outlined proposals for ensuring the safety and effectiveness of small cell tower equipment.
“All across the country, GeoExchange Heating and Cooling Systems have been used for years to heat and cool homes. This technology could be used to cool cellular equipment… [it would] require yearly inspections of all cell towers to verify that they meet FCC radio frequency standards. Verizon withdrew their application for cell towers from a New York State town when this requirement was added to the town’s zoning. Cell tower companies need to be told no before they will negotiate.”
“Nothing in this regulation addressed the rights and redress of grievances of private citizens regarding the actions and decisions of the City of Gaithersburg that adversely impact the interest, property, and health and safety of its citizens,” said Steven Raphael, a Gaithersburg resident and life member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. “This and other aspects of decisions made by city officials should be submitted for referendum by the electorate if a sizable portion of the population requests that the decision be submitted for plebiscite…Nothing in this regulation prevents multiple competing entities from submitting separate proposals to add additional towers and clutter to our environment in the name of competition. To avoid proliferation, any and all wireless tower facilities placed in the public right-of-way should become property of the City of Gaithersburg after five years and access to them recompleted by the city, who will retain the ability to license access to such public resources at five-year intervals.”
The City Council unanimously voted to keep the public record on the proposed changes open until Jan. 31. The issue will return to the Council for consideration in mid-February.
Both the City of Gaithersburg and the Maryland Municipal League, of which Council Member Ryan Spiegel will assume the presidency later this year, have identified maintaining municipal control over small cell installations in right-of-ways as a top priority of the current state legislative session.