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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
The community is feeling victorious after County Executive Marc Elrich announced at an April 18 meeting that a large communications tower proposed for Georgia Avenue at the Intercounty Connector would not be built at that site.
The selection of the site — at Olney’s southern entryway — has been contentious since the community learned of it last summer, in large part because residents and civic associations had no say in where it would be constructed and because key civic leaders and elected officials representing the community were not aware that a tower was being considered.
The April 18 meeting took place in Elrich’s office at the request of the Brooke Manor Estates Homeowners Association (HOA). That neighborhood sits just north of the site.
Also attending were Greg Slater, administrator of the State Highway Administration; Sen. Benjamin Kramer (D-Dist. 19) of Derwood; Del. Bonnie Cullison (D-Dist. 19) of Silver Spring; Greater Olney Civic Association (GOCA) President Matt Quinn and First Vice President Hilary Phillips-Rogers; county and state officials, and other community members.
The Greater Olney News was not informed of the meeting until after it was over and therefore did not attend.
“We figured getting in front of him was our best chance,” Brooke Manor HOA president Robert Zimmerman said. “We were all surprised. We thought he would say that he would talk to his staff. Instead, he said he’d talk to the state and tell them that the ICC site is off the table and to work with the community to identify a better site.”
Kramer said he was representing his colleagues in legislative districts 14 and 19, who had a united front on the issue.
“I am extremely pleased with the outcome of the situation,” he said. “I had a number of conversations and meetings with folks at the county and state levels about this tower. My sentiment and position all along was that the process by which they chose the original site was so tainted. I told them that location was an absolute no-go. The only option was to move forward to determine an appropriate location that will work for the community, state and county.”
Kramer said Elrich, Slater and he are now on the same page, and he credits them for their “thoughtful and respectful decision.”
“I told them all that this was ‘Day One’ in the process of finding an appropriate location for the tower,” Kramer said. “This is where it should have begun one, two or three years ago when they first started looking at where to put the tower. This is the way good government should function.”
Kramer said he will continue to watch closely to make sure the community continues to be heard during the process of selecting an alternative location.
“Hopefully, they will be able to find a place that makes sense for everybody and I think now we’ll be able to do that,” he said.
Kramer stood up for residents at a March 5 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.
Approximately 350 people attended that meeting.
At one point, the audience chanted, “No tower. No tower.”
At the meeting – the first held by state and county officials to discuss the issue with the community — Kramer addressed the state and county officials, 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.”
State and county officials said the communications system is collapsing and a decision had to be made.
“No one in this room is the one who waited until the eleventh hour when the system was collapsing,” Kramer 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.”
Elrich did not attend the March 5 meeting.
Quinn said that at the April 18 meeting, the county executive listened and agreed that the process was flawed.
“He didn’t want to rehash past mistakes,” Quinn said, adding that Elrich said the county and the state will take the location of George Avenue (Route 97) at the Intercounty Connector (ICC/Route 200) off the table and move forward on identifying a new location.
Several attempts to get a comment from Elrich on his decision were unsuccessful by press time. The acting director of the executive’s public information office referred The Greater Olney News to another media’s report on the topic.
Quinn said that commutations towers have become part of the landscape as communities have become dependent on wireless services.
“Making sure they are placed in locations where they are minimally invasive will continue to be a challenge,” he said, “which is why engaging the local communities up front is a critical first step.”
Quinn said GOCA’s tower ad hoc team will continue to work with the county and state in regard to identifying a location that meets all the requirements.
“While we see the removal of the 200/97 location as positive, there is work to be done,” he said. “We are committed to working and matching the urgency of the county and state to move this project forward. To be clear, we are opposed to moving the tower to a location which would adversely impact another neighborhood.”
Zimmerman acknowledged that no decision is ever going to make everyone happy.
“There are concerns about the tower’s effects on health, which are unknown. Hopefully that will be considered as part of the site selection,” he said.
“This was just great news for everyone,” he added. “I think the thing that swayed Elrich was the overwhelming public opposition. They recognized that they screwed up. Elrich did listen and this shows he does care about what is best for the community.”
Those involved in the process say several potential sites have been identified and are being studied to see if they meet the needs of the county, state and community.
The tower is part of the statewide public-safety communications system Maryland FiRST. It was originally designed to be about 350 feet tall, but county and state officials had said that it could possibly be reduced to about 250 feet.
At a Jan. 10 press conference, Elrich (D) expressed deep frustration with the status of what was then planned as a 349-foot-tall communications tower.
He said in January that 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.
“But I am frustrated because they knew about this a year ago and did virtually no work on it,” Elrich said at the January press conference.
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