OCEAN CITY — Continuing a theme of strong debate and harsh words earlier in Tuesday’s work session, the city denied a request for an extension allowing a nearly 100-foot temporary wireless communication tower at a lot on Worcester Street.
As the demand for more and more wireless connectivity increases in the resort, particularly during the summer months, the need for more and more towers to provide the service and meet the demands has followed suit. To that end, AT&T and its partner Smartlink in 2017 sought and was granted a building permit to construct a 94-foot Cellular on Wheels, or COW, tower on a vacant lot at Worcester Street in the downtown area adjacent to the H2O dance club.
On two separate occasions, Smartlink has requested and been granted an extension to keep the tall COW at the Worcester Street site and during Tuesday’s work session requested yet another one-year extension, despite objections from neighbors in the area. While there is no dispute the COWs are needed during peak times of high demand during the summer, the tower at Worcester Street has already been in place for over two years and is now seeking yet another extension.
Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville said Smartlink and AT&T has been seeking a permanent home for the COW, but cautioned against granting another extension with firm deadlines or other conditions imposed.
“We have an opportunity to allow a certain temporary solution,” he said. “This is a way you’ve been able to accommodate them while meeting the demands of Ocean City. It has been a progressive situation, but they’re pursuing a more permanent solution.”
A more permanent solution has included working with Belmont Towers at Talbot Street to site the tower on the tall structure and also working with the town of Ocean City to site the CoW on the water tower at 1st Street. However, neither of those options has gained any traction. The latest attempt has included a potential agreement with the new Cambria Hotel on the bay at 1st Street, but Neville pointed out little progress has been made with that avenue.
“They are working on a location atop the Cambria Hotel as a permanent site,” he said. “However, we don’t feel at the staff level that they’ve made enough progress to warrant another extension.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca said COWs such as the one under debate on Tuesday should be encouraged where possible, pointing to an earlier heated debate about placing small cell towers in residential neighborhoods to meet the city’s wireless demand.
“I want to see more macro-sites,” he said. “I don’t want to see these smaller towers all over town and right in people’s faces and right in our neighborhoods. That’s the better long-term solution, not right in people’s yards.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight said she could support a shorter extension if AT&T-Smartlink was earnest in seeking a permanent home for the tower.
“I could vote for this if it was just six months and they are serious about going to the Cambria,” she said. “If you can find a long-term location, I could be amenable to a short-term extension.”
Smartlink representative Justin Barlow said the company was aggressively pursuing a long-term solution, but merely needed more time for that to play out.
“I’m confident we will find a location,” he said. “It might be April before that happens, which would put us into next fall for construction because of the no-build policy in the season.”
Smartlink officials have said the beachball water tower at 1st Street is not suitable for their CoW tower, despite the fact other carriers have their equipment on the tower. Public Works Director Hal Adkins said AT&T officials were invited to the table when the 1st Street water tower was being designed and engineered and had even contracted to occupy one of the concrete pad sites at the location.
In fact, AT&T reportedly continues to pay the lease at the pad at 1st Street despite no apparent desire to site it COW in that location. Complicating the issue, the 1st Street water tower is slated for a complete blasting and repainting early next year after the original beach ball paint job failed.
“We invited all wireless carriers to participate in the planning for the 1st Street water tower and AT&T was at the table,” said Adkins. “There is a third pad site for AT&T at 1st Street that sits empty today. We’re on schedule to do a full power-washing and repainting on that tower starting in February, so they have 78 days to get something done, but they haven’t really shown an interest in doing that.”
Mayor Rick Meehan took an even stronger stand on getting the tower removed from its current location at Worcester Street regardless of the private company’s pursuit of a long-term solution.
“We’ve been put in a very difficult situation and it’s not the town’s doing or the doing of the property owners on Worcester Street,” he said. “It’s been two-and-a-half years and it’s time to move. Our idea of temporary is 180 days and this has been two-and-a-half years. It’s time to move this thing now or the next thing you know, it will be a permanent fixture down there.”
Councilman Matt James took it a step further.
“The Nov. 5 expiration on the last extension has come and gone,” he said. “It’s now seven days after that expiration and the tower is still up. It’s time for it to come down.”
After some debate, the council voted unanimously to not approve the requested extension. Instead, the council advised Smartlink and AT&T to continue to pursue some private sector solution and gave the company until May 1 to completely remove the tower from the Worcester Street location.