Ocean City, Company Reach Compromise To Keep Cell Towers Out Of Residential Districts

Ocean City, Company Reach Compromise To Keep Cell Towers Out Of Residential Districts
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OCEAN CITY — After an apparent compromise that will prevent dozens of cell phone towers, some as tall as 38 feet, in many residential areas throughout the town, resort officials this week unanimously approved a franchise agreement to allow for the installation of a network of towers expected to expand bandwidth and improve service in Ocean City.

As far back as 2015, private sector company Crown Castle announced a proposal to install as many as 90 Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), 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.

After learning of the plan to install as many as 90 of the cell towers throughout Ocean City, resort officials formally opposed the installation of any stand-alone DAS systems in residential neighborhoods, citing aesthetics and property value issues, for example. However, Crown Castle has secured a public utility designation for the towers from the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) that allows them to be installed, but also permits local jurisdictions to regulate where they can go and how tall they can be, for example.

Last month, the Ocean City Planning Commission began exploring ways to keep the cell phone towers out of the residential areas through changes to the zoning code, for example. However, Crown Castle officials have since returned with a plan that will allow them to accomplish their DAS goals while keeping the towers out of the resort’s residential areas. City Engineer Terry McGean presented the proposed changes in the plan to the Mayor and Council on Tuesday.

“Crown Castle has submitted a letter that confirms they will not pursue any installations in R-1 districts or MH districts at this time,” he said. “Based on the receipt of that letter and their revised locations and a commitment from them to abide by the guidelines presented to the Mayor and Council in the past, the staff is recommending moving forward with the agreement with Crown Castle.”

In short, the original proposal includes a number of 30-foot poles located in single-family neighborhoods with underground utilities. However, after considerable debate, Crown Castle has agreed to avoid installations in those areas and look for alternative locations. Instead, the DAS towers will be installed on existing utility poles throughout the resort where possible or on new poles that replace existing utility poles at the company’s expense.

In addition, each tower installation will require a street cut for which Crown Castle will have to acquire a permit from the town, giving the resort some leverage on where they can be located. The company will have to submit a bond to cover the cost of the requisite street cuts in an amount equivalent to other utilities. In addition, Crown Castle will have to submit a bond to cover the cost of removing the towers if and when they reach the end of their useful lives.

Each of the towers and associated hardware will have to be constructed of aluminum, galvanized painted steel, stainless steel or other corrosion-resistant materials to maintain their aesthetic values. None of the hardware will be allowed to be installed on wooden utility poles.

In addition to expanded bandwidth and Internet reliability, there is a considerable financial gain for the town as a result of the agreement. Crown Castle has proposed a 10-year term with payments to the city equal to five percent of the adjusted gross revenue received by the company, similar to the agreement Ocean City has with Comcast, for example. The projections include an upfront payment to the town as high as $300,000 in new revenue over the next 10 years although that figure could increase if Crown Castle’s revenue comes in higher than anticipated.

“Another condition is the revenue projected to be paid to the town up front at five percent of the gross revenue for the first 10 years, but if that revenue changes, the amount paid to the town will be adjusted on an annual basis,” said McGean. “In addition, no antennas will be placed in the R-1 district regardless of whether the existing utilities are above ground or underground.”

Councilman Wayne Hartman wanted some assurances the company would go to great lengths to ensure a minimum aesthetic impact on the resort with the tower installations.

“Can we discuss at this point the issue of cleanliness?” he said. “I don’t want this to become something we have to enforce, but I’d like to see them take a proactive approach to cleaning up behind themselves and that not every installation becomes cookie-cutter. I wouldn’t want them to impede sidewalks on Baltimore Avenue, for example, or in cases where properties have beach views. Those people bought those properties for a reason and I wouldn’t want to see their view impeded by installations on the corners. I’m already hearing those concerns.”

McGean assured Hartman those issues were covered in the agreement. The council voted unanimously to approve the right-of-way agreement with Crown Castle.

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.