In early 1995, Montgomery County officials were faced with a growing demand for towers and monopoles to support wireless communications needs. They recognized that the number of applications for sites would increase even more to meet both government and private sector needs. The FCC had licensed six carriers to provide wireless communications services and was expected to license more in the future. The County Executive and the County Council wanted to minimize the negative impact of these sites on the community.
An interagency taskforce was formed to study the problem. The taskforce met extensively with industry representatives and government agencies, and concluded that in the near future well over 300 sites would be needed. They reported that the number of new poles needed could be reduced by two-thirds (to about 130) if antennas could be located on existing rooftops, water tanks, towers or monopoles. Industry representatives also made it clear that what they needed most was a speedy and reliable process in order to level the competitive playing field.
The study's examination of the County's existing processes for considering and siting facilities on both public and private land revealed the need for change. At that time, all new monopoles required carriers to obtain a Special Exception from County zoning regulations - a costly and time-consuming process. The taskforce recommended that the County develop a new comprehensive policy and regulatory process to govern the siting of telecommunications facilities.
The taskforce report recommended the creation of a Tower Coordinator position within the Executive Branch and the designation of a person within each land-owning and land use agency to work with the Tower Coordinator. This group would pro-actively engage the County Government and its agencies to recommend the most appropriate sites for telecommunications towers and monopoles by evaluating requests filed with the County. The ultimate decision-making authority would remain with each agency. The report suggested that agencies be allowed to keep the revenue received from leasing their facilities in order to encourage agencies to make their facilities available to private carriers.
The County's Zoning Ordinance allows certain types of construction to take place as a matter of right, requiring only that a building permit be issued by the Department of Permitting Services prior to the start of construction. Other types of construction are allowed only if a Special Exception is granted by the Board of Appeals after review by the Planning Board.
In response to the taskforce report, the County Council adopted a Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA 95028) to regulate the installation of telecommunications facilities on private and public lands and to address many of the issues raised by the study. The legislation provided that the installation of telecommunications facilities would be encouraged at less intrusive sites, including industrial and commercial lands, existing buildings, water towers, power transmission poles, and certain public lands. Co-location of telecommunications facilities was required to minimize the negative impact on residential areas and to diminish the multiplicity of towers. Changes to the zoning regulations implemented under ZTA 95028 include the following:
Industrial zones - Monopoles are allowed as a matter of right up to 199 feet in height, with a setback from the property lines of all adjacent residential and agricultural zoned properties of at least one foot for every foot of height.
Agricultural zones - Monopoles are allowed as a matter of right if they do not exceed the allowed building height of the zone and meet a 1:1 setback from the property line, or if located within the right-of-way of an overhead transmission line not closer than 300 feet to any residence with a monopole height not in excess of 199'. In all other cases a special exception would be required.
Commercial zones - Monopoles are allowed as a matter of right up to 150' in height with a setback of 1:1 from all adjacent residential and agricultural zoned properties. In certain specified zones a special exception would be required.
Rooftop Antenna - Monopoles are allowed as a matter of right on any building that is 30' or greater in height in industrial, commercial or multi-family zones, and on any non-residential building that is greater than 50' in height in single-family residential zones.
Residential Zones - Except for the above, the Zoning Text Amendment did not change existing controls in residential zones; a special exception is still required in most instances. The filing fee for a special exception is high compared to that of a building permit, and there is a minimum period of 60 days between the submittal date of an application and the date of the Board hearing to allow adequate time for public review and comment. Carriers tend to view new sites requiring a special exception as a last resort because of the cost and the time delay.
Public Land - Private telecommunications antennas may be attached as a matter of right to an existing structure owned or operated by a county, bi-county, state or federal agency. If a carrier wishes to construct a new privately owned tower or monopole for the exclusive use of private telecommunications carriers on publicly owned land, a special exception is required. If the new tower or monopole will be used by a government agency, the application is submitted to the Planning Board rather than the Board of Appeals and the application goes through a public review process known as Mandatory Referral. Since this process is shorter (60 days maximum) and less costly than the special exception process, there is an incentive for applicants to work with government agencies to identify compatible uses with the government for facilities on public lands.
The County Executive proposed and the County Council adopted an Executive Regulation which provided for the appointment of the Tower Coordinator to serve as the primary point of contact for industry representatives and the creation of the Telecommunications Transmission Facilities Coordinating Group (Tower Committee) to review tower site applications and make site recommendations.
The goal of the process is to assist industry by ensuring a timely review of applications and by providing a reliable process among agencies. Applications for antennas on existing structures are typically processed within 30 days, and the goal is to process all applications in less than 60 days. The Tower Committee meets once a month based on the number of applications received. Their recommendations are required prior to the issuance of a building permit. Industry representatives attend and participate in these meetings. The final decision to lease public land remains with the land-owning agency, and lease revenues are retained by that agency.
The Tower Coordinator is responsible for creating and maintaining a database of existing wireless telecommunications facilities in the county, as well as existing structures of certain heights in all zones that could serve as potential sites for the placement of antennas or monopoles. The Coordinator checks applications for siting of new monopoles against the database to determine whether an alternative site exists that could meet the applicant's needs.
Applications for siting of telecommunications facilities are received by the Tower Coordinator and are reviewed to ensure that they are complete. The Tower Coordinator works with the Department of Permitting Services to confirm the zoning of the site for each application, determines whether it is considered â€œby rightâ€ or requires a special exception, and provides a recommendation on each siting request to the Tower Committee. The Coordinator also staffs the meetings of the Tower Committee, maintains a written record of all actions, and serves as a technical resource to the Board of Appeals and other agencies as needed.
The Tower Committee consists of representatives from various land-owning and land use agencies. It reviews the tower applications, considers the recommendation and other information compiled by the Tower Coordinator, and formulates a siting recommendation that goes forward to the affected agency. The participants on the Committee include members from land owning agencies, such as the Department of Transportation and Public Works, the Montgomery County Public Schools, the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission; from land use agencies, such as the Department of Permitting Services; and other parties involved in telecommunications services for the County, such as the Department of Technology Services, the Office of Cable Communications Administration, and the Office of Management and Budget.
The Committee meetings provide a forum for members to discuss siting issues, review and comment on telecommunications transmission facility policies of various agencies, and facilitate communications between member agencies and between government officials and the industry. The Committee also stays current on federal legislation and FCC rulemakings which affect tower siting and issues such as federal rules concerning RF emissions. One of the added benefits of the Committee is that each participating agency now has a person with extensive knowledge about the telecommunications industry's needs and the appropriate involvement for local government.
For the industry, a speedy and reliable process is in place. Applications for antenna sites that are allowed as a matter of right by the zoning ordinance are typically approved within thirty days. Applications involving sites that require a special exception for construction of a new tower or monopole are evaluated more closely and often take somewhat longer to receive a recommendation. Barring any unusual circumstances, the sixty-day time frame established by the Executive Regulation has been adequate for processing applications.
County agencies are currently receiving over $2 million per year in revenue from leasing public property for telecommunications transmission sites. The Tower Committee is currently looking at establishing model leases and site license agreements for use by County agencies. The application is being expanded to include the applicant's assurances of compliance with federal RF guidelines.
In addition to an effective new partnership between telecommunications providers and County officials, the goal of more effective competition is becoming a reality. Seven carriers now provide wireless phone service to county customers with better quality at lower rates.