Council Votes Down North-End Community Cell Towers, But Decision Could Be Symbolic

Council Votes Down North-End Community Cell Towers, But Decision Could Be Symbolic
A proposed tower for South Ocean Drive is shown. Image courtesy of Town of Ocean City Council packet

OCEAN CITY — Preparing for the future while holding onto the past was the center of a debate about the deployment of small-cell towers in an uptown neighborhood this week.

Members of the Ocean City Mayor and Council had before them on Tuesday a request from private sector company Crown Castle to install six new small -cell towers to enhance wireless service in north Ocean City, including three in the Montego Bay community. For the record, Crown Castle installs small cell towers and nodes around the resort and contracts with wireless providers like Verizon and Sprint, for example, to provide the hardware.

Even before the Mayor and Council reached the agenda item and Crown Castle’s presentation, a large contingent of Montego Bay residents was on hand and voiced opinions on the proposal to install three cell towers in their community. The majority of the dozen or so who spoke during the public comment period were opposed to adding any small cell towers in their neighborhood, while a handful spoke in favor of adding the towers, which could enhance wireless service in underserved areas, especially with the advent of 5G technology.

After considerable debate, the council voted 5-1 to deny the three towers in Montego Bay, with Councilman Mark Paddack in opposition and Councilman Lloyd Martin absent. Paddack later made a motion to approve the other three cell tower locations in north Ocean City, but his motion died for lack of a second.

At the end of the day, the council had essentially denied all six of the small cell towers requested by Crown Castle, but the denial could be merely symbolic. A federal court ruling in the case of Portland versus the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) late last summer ostensibly decided wireless carriers were free to install small cell towers in communities as they see fit with little oversight from local governments, save for agreements on locations and aesthetics.

The town of Ocean City already has in place an agreement with Crown Castle on desired locations and the aesthetics of the equipment. In many cases, the small cell nodes and associated equipment are installed on existing light fixtures and blend easily into the scenery. In other cases, the small towers are stand-alone, but are designed to mimic other fixtures in a given area.

Before the council could take up the debate, several members of the Montego Bay community weighed in. Holly Donovan, representing many in the community, said the biggest concern was the appearance of the proposed small cell towers, although she pointed out there were some health concerns as well.

“Our main concern is aesthetics,” she said. “Cell towers are out of character with our neighborhood. I have heard overwhelming opposition to cell towers in Montego Bay and I urge you to listen to the feedback you’ve heard from our community.”

Another Montego Bay resident, Karen Powell, agreed the community’s aesthetics could be compromised, even by adding three towers.

“Aesthetics in Montego Bay are what makes the community,” she said. “There’s not a tall building or a tall tower anywhere. It’s an old-fashioned family neighborhood.”

However, Montego Bay resident Eric Waterman said the three small cell towers could greatly improve wireless service in underserved areas of the community and said his neighbors who spoke on Tuesday did not represent the feelings of the majority on the issue. He pointed to a recent survey when 219 homeowners voted in favor and 104 voted against.

“The majority of the people commenting today want you to believe everybody in Montego Bay are against these,” he said. “A survey indicates it’s more like two-to-one in favor. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

Crown Castle Government Relations Specialist Trey Spear said the objective on Tuesday was not to debate what the towers would ultimately look like, but simply to review the proposed locations. Spear said Crown Castle works carefully with City Engineer Terry McGean and his staff on the best possible aesthetics for the towers.

“We’re here today to review the proposed locations,” he said. “The design and engineering can come later. Let me start by saying why this is needed. Originally, we came with nine requests for Montego Bay, but that’s been pared back to three. They are all in the highest-need area. There’s a lack of coverage, especially in the south end of Montego Bay.”

Spear presented charts showing how the demand for wireless service has increased exponentially in recent years.

“Ocean City has changed dramatically,” he said. “As more and more users come on, we need to plan for the next five to ten years. The total user-hours have increased dramatically in Ocean City.”

Council Secretary Tony DeLuca started off by making a motion to deny the three small cell towers requested for Montego Bay and enumerated his reasoning for the motion.

“Montego Bay has a very unique character and aesthetics are important,” he said. “There are no above-ground utilities in Montego Bay and there is a 15-foot height limit for light poles. There are no tall light fixtures in Montego Bay. That’s my justification.”

Councilman John Gehrig swung the debate from a discussion of the specific towers requested by Crown Castle on Tuesday to an overall discussion of the proliferation of towers in the resort in general. With the federal court ruling, Crown Castle and presumably other service providers have carte blanche to install towers wherever they like with few limitations. It’s a debate that has been ongoing in recent years.

“I just want to talk about the facts,” he said. “Basically, the new rules state there could be an unlimited number of poles installed. That’s what concerns me. What does that mean for Ocean City? We don’t know the answer on the end game.”

Spear said Crown Castle provides the hardware so the wireless providers, such as Verizon and T-Mobile, for example, don’t have to come in and install their own towers, which will limit the proliferation.

“When is enough enough?” he said. “We’re a co-locate solution. Our sites allow up to four carriers to co-locate. It doesn’t make sense for a carrier to deploy another site right next to our equipment.”

Another wrinkle in debate surfaced when it was learned the Mayor and Council on Monday had received a letter from Crown Castle’s legal counsel regarding the siting of small cell towers in the resort. The contents of the letter were not made public, but suffice it to say it essentially advised resort officials they were powerless to halt the installation of new cell tower. Council President Matt James said most on the council, along with the town’s own legal counsel, had not yet digested the letter.

“We received a letter from your legal counsel, but we haven’t had the opportunity to read that in advance of today’s presentation,” he said. “We do have a motion on the floor, but I’m not sure we’re prepared to vote on it.”

Spear attempted to deflect the discussion away from the letter, returning instead to an existing agreement between the town and Crown Castle.

“We’re limited to where we can go in order to meeting our obligations in the agreement,” he said. “We’re here to work with Ocean City. We’re not trying to ramrod anything through.”

However, Gehrig was not ready to let the letter issue slide by.

“That’s not what this letter says,” he said. “This letter has a whole different tone. It was probably bad timing to send us the letter prior to your presentation.”

DeLuca said Verizon, AT&T, Spring and T-Mobile make up 75% of the wireless market and each of them could ostensibly come in and install their own small-cell towers, in an attempt to answer Gehrig’s question about future competition and the proliferation of more cell towers in the resort.

“I’ve heard AT&T is already planning on coming,” he said. “That’s one of their customers turning into a competitor. I hope that answers your question.”

Gehrig again referenced the federal court ruling in Portland v. FCC.

“It’s almost as if this ruling is so broad, it’s wide open with the possibility for more towers,” he said. “At some point, local governments have to have some control over the aesthetics of their community.”

Paddack continued to push for working with a known entity such as Crown Castle, almost in a “if you can’t beat them, join them,” tenor.

“We have a court ruling, and it’s very clear,” he said. “We’re not sure what’s going to happen in the future, but Crown Castle is providing a service that could help ease the proliferation of cell towers. The town cannot deny them. The town can work with them on the aesthetics and locations. As a town, we do have a right to have a voice, but we cannot deny them.”

In the end, the council voted down the three small cell towers requested for Montego Bay with a 5-1 vote. A motion to approve the other three requested locations died for lack of a second.

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.