OCEAN CITY – The Ocean City Mayor and Council approved one small-scale cell tower but not three others amid an often-tense debate that included verbal sparring between two councilmen.
Last winter, representatives of the private-sector Crown Castle announced a proposal to install nine new small cell towers in certain north-end residential neighborhoods in the interest of improving wireless data service for residents and visitors to the resort.
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. Last winter, the council somewhat reluctantly approved the installation of nine new small cell towers in the residential neighborhoods after close scrutiny and conditions placed on locations with minimal impacts, especially in single-family home neighborhoods.
During Tuesday’s work session, Crown Castle Government Relations Specialist Trey Spear returned with four more requests for small cell towers, including three in R-1 districts and one in an R-3 district at 88th Street. Spear explained at least one of the locations approved last winter became problematic because of road width issues, while two others were proposed in different areas within R-1 districts.
“These are the last four,” he said. “Most of the puzzle pieces are in place and we just have to put in these last four. We’re kind of pigeon-holed with some of these locations.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca renewed his disdain for any new small cell towers in the city’s R-1 single-family home neighborhoods.
“I’m certainly going to be voting no on this,” he said. “It’s no secret I’m against any small cell towers in our R-1 neighborhoods.”
Councilman John Gehrig questioned if there was ever an end to the requests.
“It’s been give an inch, take a mile with these the whole time,” he said. “They’re on the Boardwalk and they’re in our busy areas and that makes sense. Now, you want to put more in our residential neighborhoods.”
For the record, Crown Castle installs the small cell towers and contracts with various wireless providers, such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint, for the service. Gehrig pointed out one of the locations presented on Tuesday was in his north-end neighborhood.
“I’ve been against having the towers in the R-1 neighborhoods and now you’re proposing to put one five houses down from mine,” he said. “I feel like I’m being punished. There are only five or six year-round residents in that neighborhood, and we’ve never once had a connectivity problem.”
Spear pointed out Crown Castle has been diligent in working with the city and its staff to locate the least intrusive locations for the towers.
“Due to right-of-way issues, we’ve really been painted into a corner,” he said. “When we first came to Ocean City, all of these were included, but were taken out at the town’s request. We wanted to come in and show that we would work with the town on the best locations and show what we can do, which is why we’re now asking for these four.”
However, Gehrig said Tuesday’s request represented a land grab for the company.
“Clearly, you’re acquiring real estate for the future,” he said. “There are no connectivity needs, and there has never been an issue with demand. If we have zero in Montego Bay where there are 1,800 homes and we’ve had no calls about connectivity problems, why do we need two in a half-mile strip?”
By that point, Gehrig had come down from the dais and was using the illustrator at the podium to make his point about the concentration of small cell towers in certain north-end neighborhoods, which is when the civil discourse took a turn for the worse. Gehrig essentially pointed out fellow Councilman Mark Paddack had allegedly acted as a representative of the Caine Keys neighborhood when he signed off on a small cell tower during the last batch of requests.
For his part, Paddack took umbrage to Gehrig calling him out and repeated he would gladly have one of the small cell towers in front of his home. The verbal sparring continued with Gehrig telling Paddack to “shut up” at one point, as Council President Lloyd Martin pounded the gavel in an attempt to restore order. When the verbal altercation continued with Gehrig and Paddack arguing while standing on the dais – that portion of the meeting was edited out of the town’s online council video — Martin suspended the meeting for five minutes
When the meeting resumed, Gehrig and Paddack were contrite and publicly apologized.
“While I believe my points were accurate, I apologize for my emotions,” said Gehrig. “Sometimes, it happens, but it shouldn’t happen here.”
For his part, Paddack agreed with Gehrig’s sentiments.
“I apologize for that outburst,” he said. “Councilman Gehrig and I have been friends for 30 years and that hasn’t changed. We’ve been very productive working together on this council and that has not changed. I’m not going to call anyone out.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight then made a motion to approve only the proposed tower in a non-residential area at 88th Street, but that died for lack of a second. Knight then made a motion not to approve any of the four proposed new towers, a motion seconded by Councilman Matt James.
However, Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out the city does have some authority to limit the locations of small cell towers somewhat, but the Maryland Public Service Commission has ruled they cannot be disallowed entirely.
“If Acme wanted to come in and put up towers, the law allows for that,” he said. “We could end up with 100 of these or even 300 and we couldn’t do a thing about it. We have somebody in Crown Castle that has shown a willingness to work with us and maybe we can minimize the exposure and the impact on the viewsheds. … “I’m inclined not to say no to any of these requests right off the bat. At some point, 5G is coming. These towers are important now and every year they are going to be more important. We’ll have people saying why didn’t you provide for that. This is the groundwork for 5G and we need to plan for the future.”
Spear acknowledged Crown Castle was planning for the eventual transition to 5G. He said the cell towers position the town to keep up with bandwidth and connectivity technology.
“The message I’m bringing today is what we’re doing today is planning for five years down the road,” he said. “Whatever service you’re experiencing and enjoying right now is the result of careful planning five years ago.”
At that point, the council was poised to vote on the motion on the floor to not approve any of the four proposed towers. However, before that vote was taken, McGean pointed out the council’s existing guidelines allowed for the proposed tower at 88th Street, which would be located in an R-3 zone.
“The 88th Street tower meets the council’s prescribed guidelines,” he said. “It behooves the council to stick with those guidelines. Whatever you decide with the others, I encourage you to approve the tower at 88th Street.”
The council voted 6-1, with Dare opposed, to approve the requested tower at 88th Street and not allow the requested towers at the other three proposed sites. Dare pointed out his no vote was because he simply did not want to close to door on working with Crown Castle on the best, least impactful locations.