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Contentious meeting draws hundreds but provides few answers -

by Judith Hruz, Editor

and Terri Hogan, Senior Staff Writer

The community finally got the answer to some of its questions: It appears the communications tower many residents feared would be built along Georgia Avenue at the Intercounty Connector is on track to be built there.

More than 350 people attended a meeting on March 5 at Cashell Elementary School — a meeting organized by officials from the Montgomery County Department of Technology Services, Maryland Department of Information Technology and Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration, who have been planning the tower for several years.

The meeting was contentious, in large part because the community said it was not included in the planning process.

After he was pressed by the community for an answer to whether the site selection was “a done deal,” Gerry Adcock, radio system project manager with Montgomery County Department of Technology Services, said, “We have decided this is the optimum site to put this tower.”

The crowd chanted, “No tower. No tower.”

At the meeting, a spokesman from the office of County Executive Marc Elrich said the executive had not made a decision.

At the end of the meeting, Dale Tibbitts, special assistant to Elrich (D), said he wanted to schedule meetings with representatives of the Greater Olney Civic Association (GOCA) and other community groups.

At the March 12 meeting of GOCA, President Matt Quinn reported that he had had phone and email conversations with Tibbitts, who he said is setting up a meeting with Dieter Klinger, the chief operating officer at the Department of Technology Services, to look for alternative sites.

The meeting likely will not happen for a couple of weeks.

GOCA has assembled a core group of individuals that will work on three main areas relating to the tower: a technology group, a health concerns group and a communications group.

Members of GOCA who attended the March 5 meeting agreed it was “very heated.”

However, there was some optimism at the GOCA meeting that the community would be able to stop the tower from being built at the planned location.

Jeff Weiler, who first brought the tower issue to GOCA last year, estimated they went from about a 25 percent chance of stopping it to about a 40 percent chance.

The tower, originally planned at over 300 feet, could probably be constructed at 250 feet, plus an 18-foot lightening rod, county officials told residents at the March 5 meeting.

State Sen. Benjamin Kramer (D-Dist. 19) addressed the organizers of the meeting, saying the site-selection study “did not involve the people sitting in this room tonight.”

He called the selection process “an embarrassment” and “disgraceful,” and said, “You are doing a terrible disservice to all the residents of the communities that will be impacted by this proposed structure.”

He added, “In light of the fact there was no outreach to the public and to the community,” the project “has no business going any further until you have started to interact with this community.”

Kramer said he was speaking for Sen. Craig Zucker (D-Dist. 14) and the six delegates of districts 14 and 19.

Kramer said he did not want to hear that the decision had to be made because the public safety communications system is collapsing

“No one in this room is the one who waited until the eleventh hour when the system was collapsing,” he said, gesturing toward the residents, “to suddenly now you don’t have time to listen to those people who are going to pay for that tower with their tax dollars.”

Since learning about the project last year, residents have raised concerns over how the tower might impact their health and their property values and other issues, but stressed their anger over the lack of transparency and interaction with the community.

At a Jan. 10 press gathering, Elrich (D) reiterated several times how “frustrated” he is with the project and its process.

He had said the decision as to where to place the tower had been lingering for a long time and that the Olney site and another near Poolesville were still under consideration for the new tower, which is part of a statewide communications system.

Elrich said he was told the public safety system is failing.

“There are places where the signal can’t get to first responders or first responders can’t communicate out of buildings,” he said.

He admitted he was “frustrated because had they fully vetted this with the community, then it would have been a lot easier to adjust sites.”

 

    Anyone interested in being part of the core group being organized by GOCA should contact the civic association’s officers through the website at www.goca.org. The group is open to all members of the community.

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