Downtown Cell Tower On Wheels Discussed

OCEAN CITY — One week after approving nine new small-scale cell towers in north-end residential areas, the Ocean City Planning Commission on Wednesday reviewed a request for an extension of a tall temporary cell phone tower on a downtown lot.

Last week, after considerable debate, the Mayor and Council approved nine new small-scale cell towers at different locations in north-end residential areas. On Wednesday, the planning commission had before them a different issue related to the same general topic, which has been highly debated in recent weeks.

As the demand for more wireless connectivity increases in the resort, especially in the summer, the need for more towers to provide the service has followed suit. To that end, the nine small-scale cell towers in the residential areas were approved, although somewhat reluctantly. A separate issue is the need for temporary tall cells on wheels, or COWs, in the populated downtown area in the peak summer months.

Two years ago, AT&T brought in a COW on a lot on Worcester Street. The COW was expected to be a temporary solution, but it has been extended twice already with a request for a third extension now on the table. The planning commission does not make decisions on the placement of cell towers, but it does hold sway over the aesthetics of structures in the city. To that end, the commission was asked Wednesday to review the request for another extension and make any appropriate recommendations. Planning Commission chair Pam Buckley said she visited the site prior to the meeting and didn’t find the temporary COW offensive.

“I don’t see it as a major detriment to visibility,” she said. “It just seems like they should be able to put that above street level somewhere.”

Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville told the planners AT&T had been seeking a permanent home for the tower, but needed another extension as that process moves forward.

“They were in negotiations with Belmont Towers, but no agreement was reached,” he said. “They were also negotiating with the town to put it on the beach ball water tower. While those negotiations are going on, they get a second extension that expires in September. They are seeking a third extension, but my understanding is they need to continue to work toward a permanent location.”

Neville said the request for a third extension triggered a review by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) because of the temporary location’s proximity to historic district properties. Although they have not been included on the national registry of historic places, a handful of downtown buildings fall under the purview of the FAA in terms of locating temporary cell towers including the Atlantic Hotel, the pier building and the Henry Hotel. However, he also pointed out there are other significantly high structures in the same area.

“It’s in a location where there are already large, vertical structures, so it really doesn’t seem out of place,” he said. “You have the roller coaster, the Ferris wheel and the sling shot all relatively close to this.”

Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis offered a few suggestions for siting the needed cell tower equipment.

“Have they considered the top of the sling shot, or maybe on the roller coaster?” he said. “They could be ideal places for this.”

Planning Commissioner Peck Miller said he could support the extension for the temporary tower in its current location as long as AT&T continues to search for suitable long-term solution.

“I would encourage them to find a permanent location sooner rather than later,” he said. “In the short term, it would be nice if they had some fencing or screening around the base. That’s something we’ve required of Delmarva Power for equipment in other neighborhoods and I think the same courtesy should be extended to this neighborhood.”

Buckley said the commission was not required to take any action because it was largely an FAA issue. However, she suggested sending a letter to the FAA and AT&T voicing some of the town’s concerns.

“I think we’ve reached a consensus,” she said. “We would like to see them find a permanent solution sooner rather than later and we’d like to see some attractive screening or fencing around it in the short term.”

Meanwhile, the issue of the small-scale towers in the north-end residential neighborhoods resurfaced during Tuesday’s Mayor and Council meeting. Last week, the town’s elected officials approved four cell towers in Caine Woods, two in Heron Harbor, two in Caine Keys II and one in Little Salisbury.

Former Councilman Vince Gisriel, who has been a fierce opponent of the new small towers, came to Tuesday’s meeting equipped with charts showing six tower sites already in Caine Woods, two in Heron Harbor, two in Caine Keys II and three in Little Salisbury. Gisriel continued to push health concerns with the proposed and existing towers and urged the Mayor and Council to reverse the approval.

“I ask you to reconsider your vote and give these neighborhoods the same courtesy you afforded Montego Bay,” he said. “Don’t let these utilities bully you from your responsibilities in the charter.”

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.