GAITHERSBURG — The Gaithersburg Mayor and City Council were briefed on July 22 by representatives from AT&T on details for a new telecommunications monopole that would improve cell phone reception.
The monopole structure would provide extra cellular coverage to the area around Great Seneca Highway, which currently has unreliable service, according to research conducted by AT&T.
The new monopole would also incorporate FirstNet 911 Emergency Services, or FirstNet. The FirstNet program was created in 2012 under the U.S Department of Commerce; its goal is to establish a nationwide broadband network that bolsters communications among first responders, according to the First Responder Network Authority.
Representatives from AT&T also noted that the FirstNet system decreases response time for emergency service workers in the event of an accident.
Greg Rapisarda, who serves as legal counsel for AT&T on this project, presented the majority of the briefing to the mayor and city council. He explained that the proposed monopole would stand 159 feet tall on a triangular platform and would include a lightning rod at the very top. The top portion of the monopole would have six directional antennae to provide cell coverage for the area.
The site for the monopole would also house some AT&T equipment and is designed to encompass about 2,500 total square feet, surrounded by an eight-foot chain-linked fence.
Rapisarda said that the tree line would obscure the bottom portion of the monopole. He showed photo simulations of the project, indicating that the multidirectional antennae are visible from the ground above the tree canopy.
The mayor and council allowed time for residents to voice their concerns about the project during the meeting. Mayor Jud Ashman explained that the site for the proposed monopole is city property, so legally, Gaithersburg city government does not have to hold a public hearing.
“But we specifically do it because we want to give the public an opportunity to speak about these proposals,” he said.
All the speakers during the informal public hearing said they were against the project.
Lisa Klein, a resident of Gaithersburg, was the first to speak. Before beginning her testimony, she noted that she has not had a problem with cellular service in her home or the surrounding area.
Klein raised concern over the generators that would maintain power to the monopole tower.
“I’d like to know more about the spark radius of the generators. Three, 150-gallon combustible fuel tanks in the middle of a forest can’t be a good idea nor a best practice,” she said.
Klein also noted concern over the health impact of the monopole for residents and wildlife in the area.
“Dead birds litter the ground around cell towers; they’re either attracted to or disoriented by them, and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service discourages towers from being in bird habitats such as woodlands. I don’t know what’s worse, the tower itself or dead birds falling from our sky,” she said.
Klein urged AT&T to find a more suitable location for its new monopole.
Max Howell was another resident who attended the meeting. He noted that he had not prepared comments for discussion because he had heard about the project and the meeting that same day.
“Don’t be fooled by the number of people here; there are probably about 1,600 homes that will be affected by this project, how many individual people, I don’t know,” he said. “This is not a cell tower; this is a monstrosity. The trees have to be a couple of hundred feet high, and this tower is twice that all by itself. I’m confounded as to why this is even being considered.”
Other residents cited concerns like decreased property values, high visibility of the tower during the fall and winter months when the trees lose their leaves, and neighborhood disruptions.
Tony Tomasello who serves as Gaithersburg’s city manager, noted at the end of the discussion that AT&T’s proposal did come out of a request from the city for stronger cell reception.
Nonetheless, councilmembers Neil Harris and Robert Wu said they were against moving forward with the project in the current location. Harris suggested moving the tower further back into the woods so it would be less visible.
Ashman and the council agreed that the project would need to move to another, more suitable site.