The president of the Montgomery County Council canceled a vote Tuesday on how close to allow new antennas and other “small-cell” equipment to be installed near homes after he said council members couldn’t reach an agreement.
The legislation had drawn intense interest over two years, both from residents who said they want faster Internet speeds and others concerned about the potential impacts to their health and property values.
Montgomery Council President Hans Riemer (D-At Large) and Montgomery Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said they had tried to balance the needs of the wireless industry to expand broadband capacity with residents' concerns that the equipment and poles would be ugly or too close to homes. However, they said, council members couldn’t decide whether to allow the poles to be 30 or 60 feet from homes and disagreed about which kinds of cell equipment applications should be granted administratively and which should require a public review process.
“We need to support the future of wireless while balancing the impact it will have on our communities,” Riemer said. He later added, “Some want to make it as hard as possible to build wireless networks.”
Wireless companies are pushing for Montgomery County and other local governments to relax and streamline 1990s-era zoning laws written for much larger cell towers, which Montgomery now requires to be at least 300 feet from homes. The companies say the new “small cell” technology needed to boost Internet speeds and build the next-generation 5G network requires smaller equipment placed closer together and lower to the ground. Much of it is being installed on thousands of public utility poles and streetlights.
Without a local ordinance, Leggett said, the county could end up losing authority over where small-cell equipment may be installed and what it looks like because the industry is pushing for state and federal laws to preempt local control.
“There’s no way residents will get better protections than we could have provided in a local ordinance,” Leggett said. “For all the citizens concerned about health impacts and proximity to their homes, we now have no good way to protect them.”
However, during public hearings, many residents said the bill wouldn’t protect them enough. Some said they’d read about radio-frequency energy emitted from cellular equipment being linked with brain cancer, depression and other long-term health problems.
Rick Meyer, of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Control of Cell Towers, said he was “ecstatic” about the bill’s demise. He said he concerns about the federal or state governments preempting local authority are “overblown.”
“This proves the county council stepped up and put the interests of residents first,” Meyer said.
He said he and other activists were most concerned that under some versions of the bill, residents could have been left out of the review process, especially if companies weren’t required to provide public notice in areas where they wanted to install new equipment.
“People could find these [poles] 30 feet from their front door,” Meyer said.
The D.C. council is also considering legislation about where small-cell equipment may go.
Members of the Federal Communications Commission have said they want to remove local barriers to installing the 5G network. The FCC recently voted to limit the time that governments may take to process companies' small-cell applications and curtailed the fees they may charge.
Montgomery officials have said they plan to challenge the FCC action in federal court. Last week, more than a dozen western cities asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to review the FCC’s rule change.
Leggett said the county will now have a tougher time arguing that local governments don’t need federal intervention to make it less cumbersome and costly for companies to install the 5G network.
“We’ve undermined our legal case,” Leggett said.
Riemer said the council will reconsider the legislation after new members are seated following the Nov. 6 election.