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Press Releases - County Council

Council Enacts Zoning Changes to Facilitate Deployment of 5G Wireless Infrastructure

For Immediate Release: Tuesday, July 27, 2021

ROCKVILLE, Md., July 27, 2021—Today the Council approved Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) 19-07, Telecommunications Towers – Limited Use, which would facilitate the deployment of next-generation wireless infrastructure in Montgomery County via wireless small cell (also known as “5G”) antennas on utility and light poles that would offer faster speeds, enhanced reliability and greater capacity. The zoning measure was sponsored by Councilmember Hans Riemer and cosponsored by Councilmembers Gabe Albornoz and Craig Rice. The vote was 7-2 with Councilmembers Sidney Katz and Will Jawando voting against the zoning text amendment. 

“Most of us don’t think much about how our cell phone works. We just expect it to work and to work well,” said Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee Chair Riemer. “That’s what this zoning change is all about—modernizing our rules to allow improved 4G and 5G coverage in our County. But it’s also about saying ‘yes’ to the exciting innovations in wireless technology so that our residents stand to benefit from its game-changing improvements in telehealth, teleworking, transportation, public safety, education, and much more.”

“As we continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, technology proved to be key to sustaining our communities through uncertain times," said Council Vice President Albornoz. "ZTA 19-07 will strengthen broadband access and Wi-Fi connections for residents to access essential amenities such as telehealth and emergency communications, and ultimately save lives.”

“A key finding of the National Broadband Task Force which I co-chaired was that jurisdictions must leverage all technologies to ensure our residents have robust connectivity,” said Councilmember Rice. “This means 5G for our residents in locations where fiber has yet to reach or where it’s cost-prohibitive. Addressing our nation’s digital divide is multi-faceted, and 5G is one part of the overall solution. I am proud that Montgomery County is taking this step to meet FCC requirements and encourage enhanced mobile broadband service. Equity will be a priority as we work to ensure the expansion of 5G in areas most in need. We have heard from our residents and this ZTA is one part of the solution to address the critical connectivity needs of our most disconnected.”

"By approving this ZTA, we are fulfilling requirements of federal law and putting our County in line with surrounding jurisdictions when it comes to the deployment of 5G technology," said Councilmember Andrew Friedson. "Throughout this process, we have listened to and discussed the community's concerns. We have learned from those concerns, limited proliferation of utility poles and reasonably restricted obtrusive placement of small cell equipment within our local authority while also working to address aesthetics and prevent tree loss. I appreciate everyone who has contributed their time and effort."

"I would like to thank my colleagues and all the stakeholders who worked on this groundbreaking effort to improve connectivity in our communities. We received a lot of feedback from our residents, and the result is that the Council has adopted Zoning Text Amendment 19-07 that recognizes the need to facilitate access to technology, with a balanced approach to deployment," said Councilmember Nancy Navarro. "The effects of disparate access to technology for disadvantaged segments of our population were exacerbated by this pandemic, and as our society moves toward a new normal that will be more dependent on emerging technologies, it is important for us to adopt appropriate FCC compliant guidelines that are aligned with regional initiatives and that are grounded in equity of access. I am also pleased that with the amendment I proposed requiring the Executive to include tree loss minimization language in all franchise agreements, service providers will be able to provide more wireless connectivity while maintaining our responsibility for environmental stewardship."

ZTA 19-07 was first introduced in 2019 but the previous Council took up the issues of telecommunications towers and small cell antennas in 2018 by passing ZTA 18-02. Then-Council President Riemer was the lead sponsor of this zoning change that allowed the deployment of wireless facilities in mixed-use and non-residential zones.

ZTA 19-07 addresses two additional issues related to small cell antennas that impact County residents. The first is to remove existing barriers to deployment to benefit Montgomery County residents. The second is to bring the County up to current standards in compliance with federal regulations, specifically with the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Small Cell order. The County’s current regulations for small cell antennas in the Agricultural, Rural Residential and Residential Zones likely do not comply with the FCC’s Small Cell order or existing Federal Law.

Moreover, the ever-increasing demand for mobile broadband services combined with the evolving technical needs of the wireless industry required legislative action for the County to maintain its competitive edge.

This is balanced with provisions that protect the community's interest in managing the commercial use of public property and maintaining attractive and safe roads and neighborhoods.

Accordingly, ZTA 19-07 does the following:

  • allows certain telecommunications towers as a limited or conditional use in certain residential zones;
  • revises the standards for telecommunications towers allowed as a limited or conditional use;
  • revises the conditional use findings required for the replacement of a pre-existing pole;
  • and generally amends the use requirements to address certain telecommunications towers

The zoning measure allows poles with antennas as a limited use, if the antenna would replace a preexisting utility, streetlight or site plan-approved parking light pole. The replacement pole must be at least 30 feet from the nearest habitable building with conditions for screening and design as well as height restrictions based on the width of the right-of-way. Poles less than 30 feet from the nearest habitable building require a modified conditional use process with a public hearing.

ZTA 19-07 also creates a waiver and objection process for new poles, if no existing pole is within 150 feet. This process also applies to applications for poles higher than the limited use standard but under 50 feet. The waiver and objection process requires a public hearing when an objection is filed.

The Council also approved requirements for preferential placement of wireless infrastructure, language to minimize the loss of trees with all installations and limits on pole proliferation by preventing a small wireless installation within 150 feet of a facility occupied or controlled by the same carrier.

A robust 5G network will provide greater access for underserved populations and contribute to all County residents’ quality of life by providing opportunities for innovation and advancement in multiple sectors, including health care, education, transportation, agriculture and entertainment.

Residents with questions on ZTA 19-07 and cell antennas in Montgomery County can find a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) here. The list includes a breakdown of the ZTA, information on what 5G is, an explanation of federal and local laws on the matter, the FCC’s role, and more.

The Council staff report for ZTA 19-07 can be viewed here.

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Release ID: 21-312
Media Contact: Sonya Healy, 240-777-7926 , Lucia Jimenez 240-777-7932