The Montgomery County Council will consider a zoning text amendment (ZTA) to set standards for the deployment of small cell wireless antennas in residential areas. The measure, sponsored by Council Members Hans Riemer, Gabe Albornoz, and Craig Rice, provides a balanced approach for the deployment of next-generation wireless infrastructure, which will offer faster speeds, enhanced reliability, and higher network capacity.
Small cells are wireless antennas that have a smaller footprint and shorter range than macrocells (what you would typically imagine as a large, tall, and free-standing cell tower), allowing them to be placed on short poles and existing structures such as streetlights and buildings.
In the race to 5G, counties and cities across Maryland are working with the wireless industry to deploy the small cell infrastructure needed to advance this new technology.
“This new zoning measure also aims to disrupt efforts in the Maryland General Assembly and at the Federal Communications Commission to remove the County’s authority to control how these facilities are deployed,” Council Member Hans Reimer said.
Reimer added, “the County is fighting those preemption efforts, not by opposing next-generation wireless technology, but by arguing that we should retain local control over deployment because we can do a better job for our residents. This zoning change would exercise the local authority that we are fighting to protect. Our own standards are more protective of local concerns than the industry-supported proposals in the state or federal government.”
According to the Montgomery County Council:
ZTA 19-07 does the following:
- Allows wireless facilities on poles in the public right-of-way by “limited use” when those antennas are set back at least 60 feet from the nearest building, plus numerous other screening, color, and size/height conditions.
- Allows wireless facilities on poles in the public right-of-way by “conditional use” when those antennas are between 30-60 feet from the nearest building, plus numerous other screening, color, and size/height conditions.
- Does not allow antennas on poles that are closer than 30 feet to the nearest building.
- Revises the conditional use process to comply with federal law by
- affixing deadlines to all steps in the process to meet federal shot clocks.
- requiring that the hearing examiner’s inquiry must determine the least visually obstructive location when ensuring provision of service.
- allowing the batching of applications.
- directing that appeals of the hearing examiner’s decisions go straight to the Circuit Court.
The impact of this proposal is that the industry is incentivized to use poles that are 60 feet or more from a building. When the setback distance is between 60 to 30 feet, residents will continue to have a voice in the process to argue that there are less obtrusive locations. No equipment will be allowed closer than 30 feet to a house or other habitable building.
Council Members Rice and Alboroz said 5G technology is essential to foster economic development and keep up with the latest advancements in public safety. “This ZTA is a step in the right direction for all County residents,” Council Member Rice said.
The Council last year passed ZTA 18-02, — which permits small cell wireless antennas in commercial and urban areas, on lower height building rooftops, and utility poles, but deferred action on a proposal to allow the attachment of small cells to existing utility poles in residential areas.
“I want Montgomery County residents and businesses to have access to next-generation wireless technology, but the County’s current zoning code effectively prohibits this technology in residential areas, Council Member Reimer said. “This zoning change will fix that by enabling the deployment essential to supporting our tech devices both at home and in the workplace.”
Earlier this year, MACo defeated a bill that would have restricted local zoning authority, preemptively codified controversial and unsettled federal laws, and advanced corporate interests at the expense of community input and needs. While counties embrace innovation and the advancement of 5G technology, it must be delivered in a fair and balanced manner, in partnership with local governments and their communities.