OCEAN CITY — Continuing a recent recurring theme about perceived visual pollution along the beachfront, the Ocean City Mayor and Council this week rejected a proposal to install as many 12 new cell phone towers on the Boardwalk.
As far back as 2015, private sector company Crown Castle announced a proposal to install as many as 90 Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), or cell phone towers throughout the town, some as tall as 38 feet, in an effort to expand bandwidth, relieve congestion and improve service for cell phones and other mobile devices in the resort. Earlier this year, the Mayor and Council reached an agreement with Crown Castle allowing the company to install up to 90 of the towers in the public right-of-way throughout the resort after gaining assurances they would not be installed in certain residential areas.
That process is ongoing with the new towers sprouting up at locations all over the resort in recent weeks, but apparently the proposed 90 towers will not meet the town’s growing needs for cell phone service, particularly in the summer when thousands are on their phones and mobiles devices on the beach and Boardwalk.
This week, Crown Castle returned to Ocean City to request permission to install an additional 19 cell phone towers including 12 on the Boardwalk and seven more on side streets between Baltimore Avenue and Philadelphia Avenue. The proposed Boardwalk towers would be installed where possible on existing light poles and would include an equipment cabinet roughly the size of a standard utility cabinet at the site.
However, one week after agreeing to oppose the development of offshore wind farm turbines as close as 12 miles off the coast, largely because of concerns about the impact on views from the beach, the Mayor and Council on Tuesday rejected Crown Castle’s proposal to install 12 new cell towers on the Boardwalk and sent the company back to the drawing board to come up with alternative plans. “They are ugly,” said Councilman Tony DeLuca. “As you stand on the Boardwalk and look toward the ocean, that’s what you’re going to see. We’re very sensitive to preserving those views. It seems like there is a serious problem.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman made a motion to reject the plan for the 19 new cell towers, all of which would be installed south of 27th Street, from a visual pollution standpoint on the Boardwalk and on the side streets where the seven other towers would be sited near Baltimore Avenue. Hartman’s motion required Crown Castle revisit the proposed locations and come back with an alternative plan more palatable to the resort.
“We spent millions of dollars to underground the utilities on Baltimore Avenue,” he said. “Now we’re talking about adding more cell phone antennas there.”
City Engineer Terry McGean said there were limitations on where the towers could be installed. Already, town officials have prohibited them in residential neighborhoods and there are restrictions in the zoning code about the density of towers in other areas, for example. Crown Castle and other utilities are already installing antennas and other equipment on tall structures in the resort, such as water towers and high buildings, but the proposed towers are need to get close to the concentration of cell phone users on the beach and Boardwalk.
“Crown Castle is considered a public utility and will only install antennas on public property or in the city right-of-way,” he said. “They have worked with us to move them to the best possible locations.”
While all agreed the proposed towers were needed to meet the ever-growing demand for wireless service, especially in the summertime, most agreed the Boardwalk should be off limits.
“I agree with Wayne,” said Council Secretary Mary Knight. “We have been talking about visual pollution with the wind farm. I find them to be unattractive. You’re talking about putting 12 on the Boardwalk and that’s one every three blocks. I don’t understand why all of the sudden you need 12 more on the Boardwalk.”
Mayor Rick Meehan questioned why more and more DAS towers were needed after so many had been installed already. Meehan said if there had to be towers on the Boardwalk to meet the demand, perhaps they could be better situated to minimize the visual impact.
“I agree with what’s been said,” he said. “I don’t know how we’ve supplied cell service all these years without all of these towers, but now they seem to be coming in increments. I’m not in favor of putting them on the Boardwalk at all, but has there been any thought to at least putting them on the opposite side at the street ends?”
In general, however, Meehan questioned what appears to be a constant demand to add more and more towers.
“At some point, enough is enough,” he said. “I understand the necessity, but what we’re trying to accomplish with Ocean City is counter to what you’re proposing.”
Crown Castle Government Relations Specialist Nathan Campbell explained the DAS towers installed on water towers and other high structures met a large percentage of the demand for cell service in the resort, but the ground-level towers proposed for the Boardwalk and side streets were needed to augment the level of service during times of peak demand.
“The installations cover a radius of about 500 feet,” he said. “That’s all they cover. The other installations don’t cover the congestion you’re going to get on the Boardwalk and on the beach. Because of the limitations on size and height, each is only covering a limited area, maybe about a half a mile.”
When asked if the same goal could be accomplished with fewer towers of a higher height located discretely throughout the town, Campbell said the taller towers still would not be able to meet the growing demand for service on the Boardwalk and beach, for example.
“In terms of doing it with larger equipment, the whole point is they need to be closer to the ground so they can be focused on the concentration of users,” he said. “Cell phone traffic in Ocean City is already overloading the network in the summertime. You could go larger, but you would probably be looking at a 70-foot pole and even then you wouldn’t be able to capture the high concentrations of users.”
Campbell said if the Mayor and Council were concerned about the visual impact of the proposed towers, particularly those on the Boardwalk, there were creative ways to disguise them, but that often had the counter effect of drawing more attention to them.
“There are things we’ve done in other jurisdictions to camouflage them somewhat,” he said. “In some cases, they’ve been painted and in other cases, they’ve been wrapped, but that might only draw more attention to them. We’d be amenable to changing them if that’s what you desire.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said Crown Castle might just be the first company to come in and request permission to install more and more towers for its clients such as Verizon, for example. McGean confirmed he had already received inquiries from other companies seeking permission to install DAS towers.
“That makes me believe this is ongoing,” said Dare. “Another company will come to us with towers for AT&T and then another will come in with towers for Sprint. All of the sudden, the public right-of-way is unmanageable. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
With that said, the council voted 7-0 to reject Crown Castle’s latest request for 19 additional tower installations and to send the company back to the drawing board to come up with other alternatives.