A controversial new zoning law will make it easier to expand 5G cell coverage in Montgomery County.
The Montgomery County Council voted Tuesday to pass a zoning text amendment that will allow 5G antennae and small cell deployments on existing structures 30 feet away from homes. These antennae can be placed on structures such as street lights and utility poles. Under previous zoning rules, 5G antennae had to be placed at least 60 feet away from homes.
“This infrastructure is wired and wireless. We all have elements of that infrastructure at all times in our living rooms or our dining rooms with wired or wireless routers, with our televisions, our devices — it’s ubiquitous. We need to allow for that infrastructure to be where it also belongs, which is on our streets,” said Council Member Hans Riemer, who sponsored the bill.
“The purpose of this zoning text amendment is to create a rational set of zoning roles to allow for the deployment of this technology,” he said prior to the council vote.
Riemer said other jurisdictions in the region have already adopted similar laws. By reducing the setback from 60 to 30 feet, these antennas are treated similarly to telecommunications towers, he said.
The council passed the amendment by a vote of 7-1, with Council Member Sidney Katz voting no and Council Member Tom Hucker abstaining.
The zoning text amendment has proved controversial, with groups of community members continuing to rally against it. A few community members held signs during Tuesday’s council discussion and yelled “Shame on you!” and “You are harming children!” following the vote, leading Council President Gabe Albornoz to raise his gavel, calling for decorum.
Some community members have been consistently and vocally opposed to the zoning text amendment, citing concerns about the potential health impacts of 5G. A couple dozen members of a group called the Montgomery Coalition to Protect Neighborhoods rallied outside the Council Office Building during the Oct. 11 council meeting to encourage council members to vote no on the amendment. No council members came out to join the rally.
During the council’s Oct. 19 meeting, council land use legislative attorney Livhu Ndou addressed the concerns about possible exposure to 5G radiation.
“Congress has explicitly preempted the county from considering any regulations related to [radiofrequency radiation] frequencies and health issues,” she said.
Ndou said there was a court case in August 2021 in which the D.C. Circuit Court found the Federal Communications Commission did need to consider potential noncancer health effects from 5G and required the FCC to do so but did not give the FCC a deadline.
“The court did also specifically note that it was not making a decision or taking a position on the scientific debate, just saying they wanted the FCC to look into it,” Ndou said. “Notwithstanding, all of that does not reverse the original small cell order, and local jurisdictions still cannot consider health effects, even though the FCC has been asked to do so.”