(Feb. 15, 2019) A healthy contingent from the Montego Bay Civic Association converged this week to share their concerns about installing small cell towers in the north end enclave, as nine new node locations were approved in other residentially zoned areas.
Even proponents expressed mixed emotions leading up to a 4-2 approval for contractor Crown Castle to install a third phase of distributed cellular antenna system installations, with councilmembers John Gehrig and Matt James opposed, during a City Council work session on Tuesday.
The approved nodes include four locations in Caine Woods, two in Caine Keys II, one in Little Salisbury and a pair in Heron Harbor.
An initial agreement between the town and Crown Castle prohibited placing cell tower poles in R-1 (single-family residential) or MH (mobile home residential) zones, but it expired in September 2017. Prior installation sites were on the Boardwalk and side streets in other sections of town.
Despite the council approving code language in January 2017 to restrict new cell towers in residential neighborhoods, the Federal Communications Commission ruled in September 2018 that, as of Jan. 14 this year, state and local governments could not regulate these installations.
The council first heard Crown Castle’s current proposal in mid-December, at which point 16 of 22 suggested nodes would have been in areas zoned R-1 or MH.
Citing low response rates from the more than 1,500 residents in Montego Bay, council members during that meeting removed nine proposed node locations pending more community feedback, while simultaneously approving a half-dozen sites not located in R-1 or MH districts.
Small cell tower negotiations reconvened late last month, when Crown Castle presented an amended proposal that still excluded Montego Bay, with the conversation eventually tabled until tower design details were finalized.
Mayor Rick Meehan recognized the numerous Montego Bay residents on hand Tuesday, as well as acknowledging a barrage of concerned emails from an even larger number of their neighbors.
“We are concerned as well about the lack of authority as a municipality … over regulating these small cell towers,” he said. “Recent decisions by the FCC have stripped us of our … ability to govern in our own communities.”
Meehan also noted the Maryland Municipal League deemed the FCC’s recently revised small cell tower regulations as its top legislative priority during the 2019 General Assembly Session.
“Their concern is that we will no longer have some of the zoning authority … to regulate … placement of small cell towers,” he said.
Crown Castle government relations specialist Trey Spear, who presented the third version of the current proposal to council on Tuesday, said conversations with the resort regarding small cell tower placement date back to 2014.
“The need for nodes in residential neighborhoods has always existed,” he said. “We’ve worked closely with the town to site the poles out there today.”
While prefacing a motion to approve the new nodes Tuesday, Dare said resort residents may well question the exclusion of Montego Bay from present consideration.
“If it’s unsafe in Montego Bay, why is safe everywhere else?” he said. “That’s a fair question ... but they probably need to ask the FCC.”
James echoed earlier doubts prior to voting in opposition Tuesday.
“I’ve heard from our residents and I’m not convinced that we need to add additional nodes at this time,” he said.
Council President Lloyd Martin, who noted the mixed data regarding potential health impacts from small cell towers, said future timelines for reviving fixture installation discussions in Montego Bay have not been established.
“From what we’re hearing, there is some general consensus in the community to have some, but that’s another day,” he said.