(March 1, 2019) Although AT&T is still negotiating locations for a permanent cell tower downtown to eliminate the cellular-on-wheels (COW) device placed at 601 South Baltimore Avenue nearly three years ago, the clock began ticking louder this week after the Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission issued a statement reaffirming the current locales’ temporary nature.
Planning Director Bill Neville said because of how long the temporary facility on Baltimore Avenue has been operational, Federal Communications Commission rules require AT&T to seek public comment regarding impacts on historical properties in the vicinity.
Neville told the Planning and Zoning Commission during its meeting last Wednesday the city originally issued a one-year temporary building permit for the COW device that was renewed once and expires again this September.
“Once the temporary permit went beyond two years, it triggered a Historical District review … [which] came through the FCC approval of the facility,” he said.
Neville said the Baltimore Avenue parcel is equidistant from a trio of qualifying historic properties.
“The Atlantic Hotel, the Pier Building and Henry’s Hotel are the three that could qualify for National Trust Historical Designation but have not been nominated or accepted into that program,” he said.
Neville said use of the parcel on the southeast corner of South Baltimore Avenue and Worcester Street was intended to be a short-term solution until a permanent spot could be found.
“This particular location was important to serve, obviously, a large number of people during the summer months,” he said.
In fact, Neville said the city had issued temporary permits for COW devices in several locations to bolster cell service in recent years.
“As people’s cell phone use increased over the years, these cell phone towers were necessary to deal with the seasonal demand,” he said.
Neville said despite previous placement deals failing to materialize, AT&T is working to obtain space on the beach ball-themed water tower at First Street and St. Louis Avenue.
“The quick version is they’re still negotiating that with both the town, and the other cell providers that are located on the water tower site,” he said.
AT&T’s initial one-year temporary building permit was extended a second year after the company agreed to a recommendation from the Ocean City Development Corporation to install fence screening around the facility, Neville said.
“They came back and asked for a third year of the extension and we issued that through September … 2019 … with the understanding they needed to continue to work on a permanent location,” he said.
Commission Secretary Peck Miller asked how the cell tower being discussed was different from small cell towers already on the Boardwalk and slated for installation in residential neighborhoods in the near future.
Neville said different apparatuses serve different ends.
“The small cell towers are to provide that distribution to the 200-300 people that are within close proximity,” he said. “These are the big ones that convey it from larger geographical distances.”
Commission Chairperson Pam Buckley said a vital issue besides the height of the cell tower is the peripheral equipment located at ground level.
Neville said that land-based concerns, rather than aerial challenges, have thus far delayed AT&T from finalizing the water tower negotiations.
“The space on the top of the tower is not so much the problem, it’s what you need at the bottom,” he said.
Commission member Palmer Gillis asked Neville for potential insights regarding the mayor and Ocean City Council’s position on further extending the temporary building permit.
Neville noted AT&T has yet to inquire about prolonging the temporary building permit beyond this September, while reiterating the current request for comment was based on the FCC Historical District review process.
“I think in September we would have to issue a letter that equipment needed to be removed and the temporary tower removed from the town limits,” he said.
Commission member Lauren Taylor suggested making any further extensions for the temporary site contingent on AT&T completing perimeter upgrades.
“Put them on notice … because the council, if we need it, they’re going to extend it,” she said.
Neville agreed while the next curve in the road is tough to predict, increasing consumer demand for cell service is guaranteed.
“It’s there because it performs an important function,” he said.
Looking to minimize visual pollution, Miller made a motion, which failed to garner a second vote, to request AT&T to replace the green screening currently surrounding the temporary site with six-foot tall white fencing.
“That would be nice to have for the summer so that street would be cleaned up significantly,” he said.
Commission member Joe Wilson made a subsequent motion, which was approved unanimously, to answer the FCC request for comment by confirming the temporary site would not be an ideal permanent location.
Neville said a letter to that effect would be sent to a consultant working on behalf of AT&T, which would filter first to the FCC and back down to the telecommunications company.
“It’s not a direct communication with AT&T,” he said.
Taylor said regardless of the prolonged location hunt, AT&T has been diligent in its pursuits.
“In their defense … they have been trying desperately to find something,” she said. “They want a solution as bad as everybody else.”