OCEAN CITY — After further contentious debate, resort officials this week approved the installation of nine new small-scale cell towers in north-end residential areas of Ocean City.
In December, representatives of the private-sector company Crown Castle announced a proposal to install small-cell towers in certain north-end residential neighborhoods in the interest of improving wireless data service. As far back as 2015, Crown Castle announced a proposal to install as many as 90 Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), essentially small cell phone towers, at locations throughout Ocean City including many of the resort’s residential communities.
The small-cell towers, often mounted on existing light poles and other utilities, are needed to expand bandwidth and improve Internet accessibility in the densely populated resort, particularly in the summer months.
Crown Castle’s proposal pitched in December included many of the north-end residential areas including Little Salisbury, Caine Keys, Caine Keys II, Caine Woods, Montego Bay and Heron Harbor, for example. At that time, a less-than-full council voted down the proposal, largely because of objections from the Montego Bay community, but left the door open for the company to return with a proposal for the other residential communities identified for service.
The Mayor and Council had recently tabled the issue in order to allow Crown Castle to further work with City Engineer Terry McGean and the affected communities on the best possible locations and designs for the nine new towers. On Tuesday, Crown Castle returned with a new proposal that tweaked some the locations and designs.
The council ultimately approved the proposed nine small-cell sites in the north-end residential areas excluding Montego Bay, the majority of the residents of which appeared to be opposed to proposal.
Despite a clear division within the seven-member council itself on the proposed installation of the nine small cell sites, it appears there was little the Mayor and Council could do even if the majority was opposed. Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave private sector companies, such as Crown Castle, more leeway in installing small cell towers in residential areas where they have historically been prohibited.
For that reason, Councilman Dennis Dare said the town could regulate where the towers are sited in the public right-of-way and possibly aesthetic issues, but could not outright forbid their installation. Instead, as it turned out, it became more of a “if you can’t beat them, join them,” issue for the council to some degree.
For others in opposition, potential health concerns with the radio frequency (RF) emissions and electro-magnetic field (EMF) emissions were reason enough to deny the installation of the towers in the residential areas. Before Crown Castle could make its new presentation and before the council could renew its deliberations, the public had an opportunity to weigh in on the issue at the outset of Tuesday’s work session.
Former Councilman Vince Gisriel, who has railed in the past about the potential health hazards associated smart meters on residences and even the potential emissions from a north-end electric power substation, took up the mantle again on Tuesday against the proposed small cell towers in residential neighborhoods.
“The premise that the FCC limits government’s ability to consider potential health hazards from low-level radio frequency emissions from these cell towers is unconscionable,” he said. “I’ve done the research and it’s compelling and it’s shocking.”
Gisriel referenced several academic research papers and reports to illustrate the concerns with RF emissions including one from the Bio-Initiative Study Group.
“They ended their written comments by stating the scientific evidence is more than sufficient that the FCC has not struck the right balance between uncontrolled wireless rollouts and health impacts,” he said. “The incremental increase in daily RF exposure already exceeds human tolerance.”
Gisriel essentially said the FCC was ignoring the scientific evidence on the potential health concerns and urged the Mayor and Council to fight against the installation of more cell towers in residential areas.
“I don’t know why the FCC is so blind to this and ignores it, but the evidence is compelling,” he said. “This council has fought wind turbines for visual blight. You’ve fought seismic testing and oil and gas exploration for environmental reasons. Be prepared to fight this to the hilt and don’t get snowballed because this is unsettled law. Fight it to the Supreme Court if you have to and the community will back you.”
While many in the large group of private citizens on hand on Tuesday were opposed to the installation of the nine towers, some community associations have worked closely with Crown Castle during the process and actually embrace the concept. For example, Caine Woods Civic Association President Joe Kostelac said his community was comfortable with the idea after working with Crown Castle.
“We determined there were no health concerns with cell towers in Caine Woods and we don’t have any objections,” he said. “When my kids and grandkids come to visit, they come with laptops and cell phones and they ask what the wifi password is before they even offer me a beer. This is for the future, the future of the town and the future for growth. Vote not for today, but for tomorrow.”
While Montego Bay has been removed from the equation, at least for the time being, that community perhaps sent the largest contingent to Tuesday’s work session. Montego Bay resident Holly Donovan, who spoke on behalf of some in the community, has done extensive research on the potential health risks and said there should not be a rush to install the towers until all of the questions have been answered.
“There is such a rush to get these towers approved while there is still federal litigation and probably state legislation,” she said. “The technology introduced in 2014 is already five years old. Are the towers we’re using today going to even be the same ones were using in 2020 and 2021? The Mayor and Council have always acted in the best interest of the citizens and I believe they will continue to do that.”
When it came time for Crown Castle to make its latest pitch with tweaked locations and aesthetically pleasing designs, Mayor Rick Meehan thanked those who came to speak on Tuesday and told them the town’s hands were largely tied because of the recent FCC rulings regarding cell tower proliferation.
“We are concerned as well about the lack of authority,” he said. “The FCC’s recent rulings have stopped our authority to govern in our own community. We want to be able to make sure we have the ability to make decisions in the best interest of our community.”
When it was time for the presentation, Crown Castle Government Relations Specialist Trey Spear acknowledged some of the comments made during the public comment period and attempted to address them. He assured the public Crown Castle had worked closely with the town through the process.
“There were some really great points brought up by the residents,” he said. “We don’t build these on speculation. There is a need out there today. We have been in Ocean City well back before 2014 and we have worked with the town on how best and where to site these nodes.”
During an earlier presentation, Crown Castle officials said the demand for wireless service in Ocean City during the peak summer months was equal to the needs of a host city for 17 Super Bowls. Because of that, service providers often bring in Cell on Wheels (COW) towers during the peak summer months to meet the demand. Councilman John Gehrig said he understood the need to meet the increased demand in the summer, but questioned why new towers were needed in the residential areas.
“I can understand why there is congestion in the public areas,” he said. “What is confusing to me is why there is congestion in the residential areas where many are using wifi at home. The first time I heard about this you were talking about the congestion and the inability to meet the demand in places like the beach and Boardwalk where large groups tend to gather.”
Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out again the most recent FCC rulings tied the town’s hands somewhat in disapproving of new cell towers in residential areas.
“In December, the FCC stripped back the right to regulate these even though there were thousands of local issues in communities all over the country,” he said. “Crown has worked extremely well with the council and the city engineer to make this as pleasing as possible.”
Others pointed out the proposed cell towers emit RF and EMF emissions at levels not even reached by common household appliances such as microwaves or alarm clocks, for example. Crown Castle engineer J.D. McCloskey attempted to illustrate how the improved wireless signals created by the new towers actually reduced exposure to RF and EMF emissions.
“How do you improve quality and strength of signal?” he said. “By bringing it closer to the end user. If EMF is concern for you, the level from the tower is actually lower than the level from the device you’re carrying around. It seems counterintuitive, but with the better quality of signal, the level of exposure actually goes down.”
Dare closed the discussion by reminding his colleagues other carriers were free to come into the resort and install similar towers with little input or authority from the Mayor and Council.
“The thing to remember is, AT&T and Verizon, Sprint and these other carriers have the right to come and here and do this on their own,” he said. “With Crown Castle, at least we have a company we can work with and is sympathetic to our concerns about the locations and the aesthetics.”
The council voted 4-2 with Council President Lloyd Martin, Council Secretary Mark Knight, Councilman Mark Paddack and Dare in favor, and Councilman Matt James and Gehrig opposed. Councilman Tony DeLuca was absent from the meeting.