Ocean City Council Seeking Public’s Help In Opposing Proposed Cell Towers

OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week made it abundantly clear they are strongly against a proposal to install as many as 90 cell phone towers, some as tall as 38 feet, throughout Ocean City and are asking residents and visitors to join in the opposition.

Two weeks ago, through a seemingly innocuous legal advertisement, the private sector company Crown Castle announced a proposal to install as many as 90 distributed antenna systems, essentially cell phone towers, at locations throughout Ocean City, including many of the resort’s residential neighborhoods. The towers would range from about 18 feet to as high as 38 feet and are needed to expand bandwidth and improve Internet accessibility in the densely populated resort.

Crown Castle approached resort officials in 2015 about installing the necessary technology to expand bandwidth and improve Internet accessibility, but that initial proposal called for installing the hardware on existing structures including light poles and other utility poles. The Mayor and Council had some concerns about even that concept, but when Crown Castle returned this spring with a vastly different proposal to install as many as 90 new towers throughout Ocean City, resort officials took exception to the plan.

“At the time, we had some concerns with this, but we were willing to work with them,” said City Engineer Terry McGean, who outlined the town’s opposition to the proposal during Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting. “They went through a couple of different consultants and this spring they came back to us and their proposal was substantially different than what we had previously seen.”

There are cell phone towers and other utility equipment already on many of the resort’s taller structures, including the water towers, for example, and the leases provide a significant amount of revenue for Ocean City. However, the proposal to install as many as 90 new towers throughout the resort including its residential areas is meeting with considerable opposition. McGean explained while the existing towers expand coverage areas for cellular service, they don’t always provide enough accessibility in densely populated areas.

“While the large towers provide adequate coverage, they’re not able to provide adequate bandwidth in areas with high concentrations of users,” he said.

McGean used the example of a Ravens’ game or other large events to illustrate how the tens of thousands of fans all on their cell phones had signals, but could not access the Internet at times.

“If any of you tried to Facebook someone or set your fantasy lineup, you had a signal, but you couldn’t get the Internet,” he said. “In response, these companies are installing the technology in stadiums, for example, and now they’re putting the same technology in cities all over the country.”

McGean acknowledged the technology is likely necessary in an era of cell phone proliferation, but said the city is strongly opposed to a plan to install 90 towers throughout the resort including its residential areas.

“We understand this is needed technology and something ultimately all of our residents and guests with cell phones are going to be looking for,” he said. “However, there is a responsible way to implement this. We are working with our own legal experts to determine, what our regulatory rights are and we are working with Crown Castle to find a reasonable solution that allows the new technology while protecting the character of our residential neighborhoods.”

However, it could be difficult for Ocean City to legally challenge the proposal. Crown Castle and other utilities fall under the guise of the Maryland Public Service Commission at the state level and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at the federal level. As a result, Ocean City’s hands could be tied somewhat from a regulatory standpoint.

“We’re obviously very concerned about this type of installation,” he said. “Crown Castle advised us they were a Maryland public utility. As a result of that, there are certain federal FCC laws in place and our local authority is not unrestricted. We do have some restrictions on how we can and cannot regulate these.”

McGean said Crown Castle has already submitted permit applications for as many as 90 of the proposed towers, but his office has rejected each.

“We told them very strongly we are opposed these installations, particularly in our residential neighborhoods where utilities are already undergrounded,” he said. “They have submitted for over 90 of these installations and we have not approved a single one of them at the local level.”

While the current opposition has focused on Crown Castle’s proposal, McGean said there were others that would likely come with similar proposals.

“We have made it clear we are opposed to these new poles in our neighborhoods,” he said. “I would also point out Crown Castle is not the only firm that is doing this. There is at least one and maybe two other firms that have been approved by the Public Service Commission as a public utility that may also want to do this in Ocean City.”

To that end, the town is urging residents and visitors opposed to the proliferation of towers in the resort to make their opposition known.

“We would strongly encourage anyone who has concerns with this to respond back to the address that was given in the local ad,” he said. “I would also encourage you to reach out to the Maryland Public Service Commission. Again, the town has not approved any of these applications and the town is going to do everything it can to make sure our residential neighborhoods are respected.”

For the record, Crown Castle’s point person on the project is Richard Rothrock and he can be reached at Richard.Rothrock@crowncastle.com. The Maryland Public Service Commission contact information can be found at www.psc.state.md.us. Council Secretary Mary Knight spoke from her past experience in the public utility industry on the importance of a strong public opposition to the proposal.

“It’s crucial that the public speaks out on this,” she said. “What they do if we don’t speak out is, when they go before the Public Service Commission, they just say ‘well, nobody said anything’. So that’s why we think it is really crucial for the residents to let them know because you don’t want this in your neighborhood.”

Mayor Rick Meehan stressed the importance of a strong unified front from the city and its residents in opposition to the tower proposal.

“They have applied for these permits and the town has not approved any of them,” he said. “We believe there is a lot of work to be done before any variation of this moves forward. I think it’s important for the public to know the position of the Council and that we’re actually in this together. This is one where we we’re asking for your help to also write the letters and also make the phone calls to let them know you support the Council and we have a unified opposition to this as presented.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.