Divided Ocean City Council Votes Down Three Cell Towers

OCEAN CITY — Continuing a recent trend, a divided Mayor and Council this week denied a request from a private sector company to install three small-cell towers in uptown residential neighborhoods.

The Mayor and Council had before them on Tuesday a request to install three new small-cell towers in north Ocean City to enhance wireless service in the communities. For the record, Crown Castle installs small cell towers and nodes around the resort and contracts with wireless providers Verizon and Sprint, for example, to provide the hardware.

In March, Crown Castle came before the Mayor and Council with a request to install six new small cell towers, including three in the Montego Bay community. The others were planned for Old Landing Road, Bering Road and Marlin Drive.

At the time, the council voted 5-1 to deny the three towers requested for Montego Bay. A motion was made to approve the other three on Old Landing, Bering and Marlin Drive, but that motion died for lack of a second. Crown Castle came back before the Mayor and Council on Tuesday requesting approval for the other three after working with City Engineer Terry McGean on the design elements.

“This is a continuation of a previous presentation and discussion the council has had regarding the plan to install new antennae,” said McGean. “Crown Castle is not requesting any of the installs in the MH district. This is a request for the same three locations that were asked for earlier. All are in the R-1 district with existing above-ground utilities.”

Crown Castle Network Permitting Manager Nathan Campbell explained the requests before the council on Tuesday were not new requests, but rather a continuation of the request made in March.

“These are locations the council has seen before,” he said. “We have worked with city staff on achieving a design that can minimize the impact of these facilities, while providing the wireless capacity needed and the community desires.”

Councilman Lloyd Martin made a motion to approve the three small cell tower locations presented, a motion seconded by Councilman Mark Paddack, who praised the company for working with the city and being flexible with the tower designs and locations.

“It’s very clear that Crown Castle has worked extensively with our engineering department,” he said. “I thank you and your company for what you’ve done. There have been multiple court cases related to small cell nodes. With the current state at the federal level and FCC regulations and court rulings, we have to be very careful about how we address these.”

Over the last several months, Paddack has been a strong advocate for the installation of small cell towers throughout the resort to improve wireless service for residents and visitors. He said by working with Crown Castle, Ocean City can prevent the proliferation of other providers coming in and installing their own equipment throughout the resort.

“The public needs to understand there are other carriers and providers out there that are wanting to come into Ocean City and proliferate this town with these cell phone nodes,” he said. “Crown Castle and the technology they have in their towers allows them to accept other outside carriers on their existing poles.”

Councilman John Gehrig said he could not support the individual request made on Tuesday without knowing where the installation of more and more towers in the future ends and when enough is enough.

“My stance has been pretty consistent,” he said. “These poles can literally grow like weeds. Who’s to say we can deny anyone based on FCC rules? Until I see a plan with the finished product, I just don’t know if I can vote for something if I don’t know what the outcome is.”

The council voted 4-3 to deny the request for three new small cell tower in north-end residential communities, with Gehrig, Council President Matt James and Councilmen Tony DeLuca and Peter Buas opposed, and Martin, Paddack and Councilman Frank Knight in favor.

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.

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.