Divided Council Votes Against Cell Towers Near Homes, But Company Could Move Forward Anyway

Divided Council Votes Against Cell Towers Near Homes, But Company Could Move Forward Anyway
A Distributed Antenna System is pictured added on to an existing light pole in Ocean City. Submitted Images

OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week refused to budge on the proposed installation of small-scale cell phone towers in residential areas after an often-tense debate, but it remains to be seen if the vote for “no action” will deter the proposal.

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 and are needed to expand bandwidth and improve Internet accessibility in the densely populated resort, particularly during the summer.

In the years since, Crown Castle has installed dozens of the towers in different locations around the downtown areas and along the Boardwalk. For the most part, the company has worked closely with the town to locate the towers in areas deemed least intrusive to residents and visitors and careful decisions on design and color schemes have largely resulted in the towers blending easily into the landscape.

Heretofore, however, the residential areas, particularly in the north end of town, have remained largely off limits for the installation of the towers. During Tuesday’s work session, the Mayor and Council had before them a request from Crown Castle to install as many as 22 small cell towers in the north-end residential areas including nine in the densely populated Montego Bay community. Company officials have asserted the increased demand for cell service, particularly in the summer months, has precipitated the need for more towers to improve coverage for the mobile service carriers they serve.

Before the Mayor and Council could hear the presentation and make a decision one way or the other on the proposal, members of the public and residents of the communities in which the towers are proposed were allowed to weigh in during a public comment period. Montego Bay resident Holly Donovan said informal polls conducted in the community that appeared to show support for the proposal did not accurately reflect the will of the majority

“On behalf of Montego Bay, I’d like to aske for some kind of continuance or tabling on this until we have an opportunity to give some information back to the Mayor and Council,” she said. “Montego Bay has a poll or survey but it was deemed invalid because of false or misleading information. There were two separate polls on social media, both of which showed a majority of the residents were against these towers. There were very different results than what was reported by the civic association.”

Caine Woods resident and former councilman Vince Gisriel said allowing the towers would fly in the face of the town’s long-standing policy against small cell towers in the traditional residential neighborhoods.

“When I was on the council years ago, we made a concerted effort to restrict utilities in the neighborhoods,” he said. “With the advent of this proposal, there is going to be a proliferation of these kinds of poles. That concerns me from an aesthetic standpoint in the neighborhoods.”

Gisriel, who has railed against smart meters on homes and an expanded power plant in the north end in the past because of unknowns associated with public health issues, said the same principles apply with the small cell towers.

1-poles-150x150.jpg“The jury is still out on the health issues associated with this,” he said. “As technology moves forward, there has been a proliferation of these types of low-level emissions. I urge you to delay any action on this until these issues can be resolved. You have been fighting wind turbines 19 miles offshore, but these towers are right in people’s backyards.”

City Engineer Terry McGean, who was been working closely with Crown Castle on the location, style and design of the small tower sites around town to date, said there have been changes in the need for more towers since the original contract.

“The original contract included an agreement from Crown Castle not to put towers in residential areas for a period of one year,” he said. “That one-year period has now expired. Crown Castle is now regarded as a public utility by the state of Maryland. As a result, we can’t prohibit them, but we can attempt to regulate them.”

McGean explained a ruling this fall by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave companies more leeway in installing small cell towers in residential areas where they have historically been prohibited.

“One of the things we’ve been hanging our hat on, particularly in the residential areas, is that we prohibit installing above-ground structures if the other existing utilities were underground in these neighborhoods,” he said. “Crown Castle disagrees with that. At the end of September, the FCC issued a ruling specifically addressing these types of systems and for lack of a better word, virtually strips local government from prohibiting these systems.”

McGean said Crown Castle has gone out of its way to help ensure the installation of its existing towers are amenable to the town to the greatest extent possible. He explained the company has shown a willingness to do the same going forward with the towers proposed for the residential communities.

“Crown Castle has been excellent to work with,” he said. “We can’t question the locations, but within the coverage area, we can move them across the street or we can ask them to change the style or color of the towers. They have been very good about working with us on that.”

When asked if every effort to ensure the least amount of intrusion in the residential areas has been exhausted, McGean said those efforts are ongoing and will continue.

“Are there areas in Montego Bay where we can move them around? Yes,” he said. “In my opinion, we cannot flat-out tell them they can’t go into the neighborhoods. We can regulate them somewhat and we can work with them on the locations, but we can’t prohibit them.”

Councilman Matt James asked why there was a sudden need to add more cell towers in residential areas when the town has clearly been against it.

“Is it a coverage issue?” he said. “Have we gotten complaints about service? What is driving this?”

Crown Castle Government Relations Specialist Trey Spear attempted to explain the increased demand.

“It’s really a capacity issue,” he said. “The town of Ocean City is inundated during the summer months. The existing system was built for a two-lane highway, but you have traffic jams the magnitude of a four-lane or even six-lane highway.”

Councilman Tony DeLuca, who has been adamantly against cell towers in residential areas, asked if every effort to install taller, high-capacity towers outside of the residential areas had been explored. Spear explained there was a maxing-out of sorts with the cell sites on water towers and other high structures throughout the resort.

“The macro-sites, or tall towers, already exist in town,” he said. “That is not a potential solution. These small cell sites are to fill in areas that are uncovered or underserved. It’s not like we can surround a community with sites and hope it makes it to the center of a community.”

Some of the civic associations in residential areas in which the towers are proposed have expressed no opposition, including Caine Keys II, for which Councilman Mark Paddack served as association president for 12 years.

“From our neighborhood standpoint, none of our people had an issue with this,” he said. “Technology is going to continue grow. We’re not going back to the 1980s.”

However, in other communities such as Montego Bay, for example, a clear consensus from the residents has not emerged. Council Secretary Mary Knight attempted to find a solution that would allow the small towers in some communities but not in others.

“What if we approve all sites that don’t include Montego Bay?” she said. “Then, we can bring them in and get their opinion. Maybe we an approve the 13 that aren’t in Montego Bay but not the nine that are in that community. In the meantime, we can continue to work with Montego Bay on some of these issues.”

However, Spear said it would be challenging to get a clear consensus from a community the size of Montego Bay.

“It’s hard to get the blessing of the majority of those residents,” he said. “It’s so densely populated. There are 1,600 residents in the community and assuming at the very least there is one resident per household, that’s 1,600 voices that need to be heard.”

Councilman Dennis Dare made a motion to table the discussion regarding Montego Bay and allow the installation of the towers in the communities from which there is apparent consent.

“I make a motion to table this and allow Crown Castle and staff to drill down more on the specific locations,” he said. “That needs to be done. It needs to be vetted a little bit more in a timely manner. They need to have this done before the season because otherwise there will be lapses in service in some of those areas.”

However, James remained staunchly opposed to the installation of the towers in any residential areas and questioned why there appeared to be a break from the long-standing policy now.

“We’ve had a policy not to allow them in residential neighborhoods,” he said. “What has changed now that this body wants to but these towers in single-family home neighborhoods?”

Mayor Rick Meehan said there were a couple of forces at play under the current situation.

“One thing that has changed is the FCC ruling,” he said. “Secondly, I don’t think anybody wants them in their community. I just think if they are inevitable, we can work with the company to make sure they are amenable for everybody.”

The vote was called on the motion to allow the installation of cell towers in the communities not largely opposed while taking Montego Bay out of the equation and allowing staff to continue to work with residents and Crown Castle to identify suitable locations. That motion failed by a 3-2 vote with Knight, DeLuca and James opposed and Dare and Paddack in favor. Essentially, the vote signaled no action on the issue for the Mayor and Council. When asked what that specifically meant for the overall project, Meehan attempted to explain the outcome for the rare 3-2 vote.

“I presume Crown Castle will continue to work on this project,” he said. “I think they will continue to look for ways to resolve this and challenge our vote. The ball is in their court.”

Paddack asked the no-voters for their reasons for killing the entire project. James explained his position hasn’t changed from the beginning.

“I don’t want to table it at all,” he said. “I don’t support these towers anywhere in residential neighborhoods. I never have and I don’t plan on it.”

James cautioned against being swayed by a company that stands to gain from the approval of the cell towers in residential neighborhoods.

“Somebody who wants to install these towers in residential neighborhoods has told you that cell service will be dead if we don’t do this,” he said. “That’s BS. Cell service isn’t going to be dead. You might not be able to watch videos as fast as you like, or your pictures on Facebook might not be as clear, but you’re going to be able to get service and you’re going to be able to call 911.”

James pointed to other areas where cell towers are few and far between but service is not significantly diminished.

“If you go out in Bishopville, and I know there are less people and less users out there, there isn’t a cell tower for miles and yet we need nine in Montego Bay?” he said. “We’re not getting the full story here. We have had a policy in place and I think we need to adhere to it.”

Dare then made a motion to allow Crown Castle and presumably other companies to install small cell sites in areas that aren’t zoned residentially. That motion passed unanimously. It’s uncertain just what that means for the proposal to install towers in the residential areas. Armed with the FCC ruling, Crown Castle could move forward with installing the towers as planned and based on the company’s track record, it would continue to work with town staff and the communities to minimize the intrusions to the extent possible.

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.