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Council clears path for tower on Georgia; community vows to continue fight against location -

by Judith Hruz

Editor

The Montgomery County Council took action July 30 that paves the way for the state to erect a communications tower on Georgia Avenue at the Intercounty Connector in Olney, but community residents, opposed to the tower because they fear the impacts on their health and property values, say they are “not going to give up yet.”

The council voted unanimously to move forward with funding in the Capital Improvements Program to build the tower on Georgia Avenue despite fervent objections from the Greater Olney Civic Association (GOCA) and nearby residents, who are frustrated at not being included in the site-selection process.

The county has been looking to replace its aging public safety communications system for a decade, but Olney residents learned for the first time last summer that a tower – then described as 350 feet tall, but now described as approximately 250 feet – would be placed on Georgia Avenue.

The approved funding also includes another tower that had been under scrutiny on the Bretton Woods golf course in Darnestown. That site was considered inappropriate because it sits at the gateway to the county’s Agricultural Reserve.

Robert Zimmerman, president of the Brooke Manor Homeowners Association, said immediately after the public hearing that residents will “look at all alternatives,” including legal and other options.

GOCA officers and residents – who have been willing to work with state and county officials on the project and have identified an alternative site a short distance away along the ICC – held a rally before the hearing, and subsequent vote, at the Council Office Building in downtown Rockville to demonstrate their position and to tell the Montgomery County Council and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) how disappointed they are that the government has not given them a voice.

“This tower is not the solution,” GOCA Vice President John Blachere, of Ashley Hollow, said.

    Flanked by residents, some of whom carried signs chiding Hogan and County Councilman Hans Riemer, Zimmerman reiterated the disappointment that state and county did not include the community in selecting a site and stressed the health and economic slam local residents could take.

“No one knows that the tower is safe,” he said.

Zimmerman added that studies show the value of properties will decrease by at least 10 percent.

Brooke Manor sits adjacent to the Georgia Avenue/ICC site.

State Sen. Benjamin Kramer (D-Dist. 19), who has been a vocal champion for the community since residents learned of the tower last year, attended the rally and spoke at the public hearing.

He said Riemer (D-At large) “is doing his best impersonation of Chicken Little” with his “the sky is falling” myths to distort how imperative it is to use the Georgia/ICC site instead of another site.

At the public hearing, and with Riemer on the dais in front of him, Kramer called Riemer’s actions “an effort to discredit and embarrass the county executive for his own political gain.”

An attempt to get additional comments from Riemer following the hearing were unsuccessful and he nor his office answered a request from The Greater Olney News by press time.

Kramer said choosing a new site for an Olney-area tower would not delay putting the new 22-tower system in place by December 2020.

He also said that Motorola, the vendor for the communications system, said it would function at 98.6 percent of capacity. Industry standards use a 95/95 benchmark – 95 percent coverage for 95 percent of the time.

The Olney community learned last summer that the state, with help from the previous administration of Montgomery County, had planned the tower.

The tower is part of a 22-site (towers, monopoles, dishes) system to improve the emergency communications system.

Residents asked for a meeting last year to discuss the tower and offered to help find another suitable site in Olney. The meeting was not held until March, when officials told some 400 residents that the selection was made and it was too late to change.

County Executive Marc Elrich (D) and State Highway Administrator Greg Slater a few months ago told the community that the site would be pulled from the table, but Hogan said he would move forward with the site.

Kramer said the governor “should apologize to the community” for overriding Elrich and his own state transportation administrator and “without even having met with anyone from this community.”

An attempt to reach Hogan following the hearing were unsuccessful and he nor his office answered a request for comment from The Greater Olney News by press time.

Hogan has said his decision to move forward is based on safety. Elrich had asserted that safety of the county will not be jeopardized by installing the other towers in the system by December 2020, with the one in Olney to follow.

However, in a letter to the County Council dated July 9, Elrich told them the county would “co-locate our radio system on the State’s tower where they build it and so we will no longer be searching for an alternative site.”

At the end of the public hearing, Riemer called the process regarding the tower “a journey on a very rocky road.”

He said the council, who remained “firm in our oversight role,” would have supported alternative systems if they did not result in delays in getting a new communications system up and running.

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