Last updated: April 25, 2018
This image from Google Maps was taken in October 2017 shows Piney Branch Road looking east. Image was taken just before installation of wireless antennas and equipment on 43 foot tall "replacement cell pole" shown on right side of street next to three story aparment buliding. Note the main distribution lines are on the opposite side of street. The previous pole was only 28' tall, which was the pole height approved by the Tower Committee. The previous pole was approximately as tall as the apartment roof line.
We toured the Montgomery County neighborhoods of Goodacre Knolls and Clifton Park Village along Piney Branch Road (MD-320) to survey five cell poles installed in late 2017 on public rights of way. The cell poles are part of the Langley Park Distributed Antenna System (DAS) network of interconnected wireless transmission facilities. Some of those DAS facilities are atop buildings - our survey only focused on cell poles.
The survey provided a firsthand look at Montgomery County’s vision for future deployment of wireless facilities in neighborhoods with above ground (aerial) electric utility wires.
The residential neighborhoods along Piney Branch are attractive, comfortable and densely populated area that straddles the Prince George’s County line inside the Beltway between Flower Avenue and New Hampshire Blvd.
However, as the cell poles in Piney Branch clearly show us, the County’s vision for wireless deployment isn’t pretty – literally.
The Piney Branch neighborhoods have many similarities to other areas in Montgomery County that have above ground utility wiring including Chevy Chase, Silver Spring, Wheaton, Glenmont and Bethesda – to name just a few. Housing here is mostly solidly-built brick single family and low-rise apartments dating to the 1940’s and 50s. There are many older, large trees – and, up and down almost every street rows of utility distribution poles and wires.
In his official report dated July 5, 2018 - the Tower Coordinator, after reviewing various revisions to the application for proposed pole on 11th Avenue, advised the Tower Committee "that the proximity to all residential homes on this block is problematic and we cannot recommend this application." As noted above, the Tower Committee ignored the Tower Coordinator and unanimously approved the application. The Tower Coordinator's report presented these additional points:
The Tower Coordinator's report stated that the developer would have to reapply to the Tower Committee should there be need to install a taller pole than that of existing pole. He also mentioned (as he did in his report on all of the other four applications) that the County Zoning code only allowed for 3' antennas. But, this application for 4' antennas was also approved by the Tower Committee after the application was revised to delete all mention of "small cell" antennas that are limited to 3' in height, and substituted with "Distributed Antenna System (DAS)" antennas, which the Tower Committee intepreted as NOT being subject to 3' limitations. (The County disabled the original online link to the 11th Avenue application file on February 19, 2018 - and subsequently deleted the Tower Coordinator's negative reommendation.)
We can find no record of any subsequent application addendums that might seek to revise or update pole height dimension information for this or any of the other four poles in Piney Branch even though ALL of the five installed poles are taller than heights "recommended" by Tower Committee. We're unable to find record(s) that the Tower Committee or the Department of Permitting Services has initiated any action to have applicant correct these non-recommended (unapproved) height modifications.
The Tower Committee meeting minutes only state that a (utility company) work order for the specific pole had to be provided to DPS at the time of permit application. As noted above, the public must request access and, then, wait up to 30 days before being allowed to see documentation supporting permits - so, it is not currently known what was submitted by the wireless developer to DPS.
This 43' cell pole and antenna (at center right above) located on 11th Avenue in Silver Spring was unanimously approved by the Montgomery County's Tower Commitee for installation in 2017 just 34' from nearest single family home - in Prince George's County! This view is looking east. The Prince Georges County line diagonally bisects the driveway with the silver car.
This photo taken in February 2018 shows the new "replacement cell pole" that with antennas attached is almost 48' tall. (Approximately 21' TALLER than overall height approved by Tower Committee.) The cell pole is just 47' from wall of apartment building. Montgomery County does NOT impose minimum setbacks from apartment buildings.
This Google image from April 2012 shows scale of prior existing 30' pole which was slightly shorter than adjacent apartment building. Note the comparative position of the extended "cobra head" lamp which is at same elevation on the "replacement cell pole" (shown in image at left) to visualize just how much more height was added in late 2017. The Tower Committee and DPS have taken NO ACTION to correct the unapproved 23' of added overall height. The taller "replacement pole" has almost 100% greater mass than the prior 30' pole, which was both shorter and narrower.
This Google image taken in October 2017 shows the existing 23' "stub pole" in front of three story apartment block on Arliss Avenue. Note comparitive height of street lamp beside stub pole. (Stub poles are primarily intended to support the utility distribution lines comprised of much taller poles on opposite of street. Stub poles typically are NOT part of power distribution.) The Tower Committee approved placement of 4' foot antennas atop the existing 23' pole.
This application is an extraodinary case in many respects and was NOT recommended by the County's Tower Coordinator. But, this application was unanimously approved by the Tower Committee. The replacement cell pole installed in late 2017 sits on a tiny pie shaped public rights of way easement that is literally on the County line - approximately 60 feet from nearest Montgomery County residence and only 34' from nearest Prince George's County residence. Several previous applications for similar cell poles on a nearby residential neighborhood streets were submitted and, then, withdrawn after each was deemed to be inside the minimum setbacks - in Montgomery County.
The new 43' "replacement pole" along with 4.5' antenna can be seen on left side in this view looking south. The 47.5' total height of the "replacement cell pole" as installed was increased by 14.74 feet or approximately 10' more than approved by the Tower Committee. The
County has taken NO action to correct this unapproved extra height.
This August 2017 streetview image from Google Maps is looking west on Piney Branch Road. Image shows the previous 33' tall "stub pole" (to right of yellow sign in front of white food truck) that is supporting larger, taller distribution poles on opposite (left) side of street. This is the only cell pole in the Piney Branch group that we surveyed which was not installed adjacent to residental properties.
Montgomery County Coalition for the Control of Cell Towers
Thus, much can be learned (and inferred) about coming deployments of cell poles in other areas of Montgomery County by examining the application review and approval processes recently followed by the County’s Tower Committee, that is responsible for evaluating and approving new cell pole applications, the Department of Transportation (MCDOT) and the Department of Permitting Services (DPS) regarding the Piney Branch cell poles.
Here is close up of the "replacement cell pole" taken in February 2018. The cellpole sits just 25' from the apartment building.The total height is now 47.5' and looms over the adjacent residential structure. This is 15' taller than the approved overall height. The County has taken NO action to correct the unapproved height.
This Google satelite view map shows approximate location of five Langley Park (LGY) DAS network cell poles installed IN 2017 along Piney Branch Road in Eastern Montgemery County. These neighborhoods all have above ground utilities and are similar to older neighborhoods like Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Wheaton.
This Google image is also from October 2017, shortly before the "replacement cell pole" was installed. It shows both sides of street on same block of Arliss Street. The previous existing 23' pole can be seen on right just beyond black pick up truck next to street lamp. Note the much taller distribution line pole on opposite of street, which runs along parking lot for commercial shopping center. Rather than choose a taller existing pole away from residential buildings, the wireless developer applied for - and the Tower Committee approved - installation on a shorter pole as close to apartment buildings as possible. A "replacement pole" was subsequently installed in late 2017 that nearly doubled the height of the shorter existing pole. The County has taken NO ACTION to correct the unapproved additional pole height.
The County disabled original link to this application as of Feb 19, 2018)
This image taken in February 2018 is looking south. While the "replacement cell pole" sits on a tiny sliver of property located in Montgomery County, both of these houses shown in foreground are in Prince Georges County. This cell pole with 4' antenna is 43' tall. The Tower Committee only approved a 38.5' total height. (The application improperly lists the cellpole location as an address on the OPPOSITE side of the street - in Montgomery County.)
SUMMARY OF WHAT WE FOUND
The Tower Committee ignored setback requirements for cell poles near single-family homes. Current County ordinance defines a minimum setback of 60 feet for single family and duplex residentces.
On 11th Avenue, the wireless developer found an existing pole on a parcel 6 feet from the Prince Georges County border. That pole was converted to a wireless facility and sits just 34 feet from the nearest house – in Prince Georges County! The Montgomery County Tower Committee unanimously approved the installation of that cell pole - even though the Tower Coordinator (an independent engineering firm that performs technical reviews of cell pole applications) did NOT recommend approval of the application for numerous reasons detailed below. The Tower Coordinator very rarely offers a designation of NOT recommended.
In the most extreme recent examples in Piney Branch, the Tower Committee approved a cell pole pole just 25 feet from a 3-story apartment building and in another case just 27' from building walls. In total, four of the five poles surveyed in Langley Park are closer than 60 feet to residential buildings. However, as further discussed in the photo essay below, we sadly note that not all residential building types are subject to setback requirements. (Montgomery County's current zoning code does NOT have set back requirments for cell poles on rights of way located near apartment buildings.)
The Tower Committee disregarded County zoning restrictions on the size of permissible antenna configurations. and on all five installed cell poles approved 4’ tall antennas. The County zoning ordinance clearly specifies a maximum height of 3' for these types of antennas. The wireless developer was NOT asked to provide a compelling reason for the larger antennas. Three feet tall antennas are in widespread use by same developer on other cell poles within the County.
For all five of these Piney Branch cell poles, the developer (along with the utility company which owns the actual poles) replaced existing shorter poles with taller, bulkier and heavier poles (in two cases more than doubling the existing height.) The County has consistently “looked the other way” and made no previous efforts to enforce size conditions upon cell pole applicants or the utility company as owner of the cell poles in the public right of way. This was repeated for the cell poles in Piney Branch.
Further, the obtrusive impact of these taller cell poles on the chosen sites is magnified because the developer consistently found and then replaced “stub poles” outside (usually across the street) of the distribution lines, thus “breaking the uniformity of the visual pattern.”
Construction permits must be issued by the Department of Permitting Services (DPS) for each cell pole. By County ordinance, DPS is supposed to follow decisions and conditions imposed by the Tower Committee before issuing permits. We found little to no actual evidence of coordination between DPS and the Tower Committee regarding these poles. (We are submitting requests to DPS for additional information to determine if permits comply with requirements in County ordinance to reference the Tower Committee application numbers. However, typically takes a minimum of 30 days to obtain copies of permits from DPS.) Without those application numbers on permits it is very difficult to track compliance – particularly with the limited, cumbersome and frequently out of date information that is made available to the public via DPS’ computer system.
FREEZING OUT PUBLIC INPUT
Over many years the County has evolved a procedures for approving cell poles erected in the public rights of way that effectively silences and shuts out the public from any meaningful input to the cell tower siting and review processes. That was certainly true for the poles approved in Piney Branch.
Again and again, despite County ordinance requirements to the contrary - there was no appreciable advance public notice, and no solicitation of public input by the MCDOT, which controls the public rights of way. There was no opportunity for the public to offer testimony before the Tower Committee – which only permits Committee members (all of whom are appointed employees of various local government agencies) and representatives of applicants to speak in support of applications at their meetings.
Unfortunately, for the residents of Piney Branch neighborhoods the first real notice received that their utility poles were to be enlarged and cellular antennas and transmitters installed was the arrival of construction crews.
Other similar neighborhoods with above ground wiring can and should expect essentially the same type of cell poles and the same (or even worse) experience with the Tower Committee approval process in the coming months of 2018. Particularly, if the pending Zoning Text Amendment 18-02 is passed by the County Council.
(The cell poles in Piney Branch are not an isolated circumstance. For other examples of how Montgomery County residents were shut out of processes that led to stealthy approval and subsequent relocation of five cell poles in Potomac in 2012, please read this recent article -see page 15 - in Montgomery County Civic Federation News.)
This photo from February 2018 shows "replacement cell pole" that with antennas attached is almost 57' tall. This location is on one of the highest elevations anywhere in Piney Branch area. The Tower Committee only approved installation of antenna on a 30 foot pole. The "replacement cell pole" stands just 27 from walls of the adjacent four story apartment building. As noted above, Montgomery County does NOT impose minimum setbacks from apartment buildings.