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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
Despite year-long opposition from the community, a 268-foot-tall communications tower stands on Georgia Avenue near the Intercounty Connector.
Patrick Mulford of the Maryland Department of Information Technology said the primary mission of the tower is to support the Maryland FiRST statewide interoperable public safety land mobile radio system and the Montgomery County public safety radio system, providing state and local first responders with radio coverage in the greater Olney area.
The tower structure itself is 250 feet tall, but it has an 18-foot beacon/lightning rod extension for a total height of 268 feet.
Mulford said the antennas supporting both public safety radio systems have not yet been mounted on the tower. Those antennas, as well as the radio equipment, should be installed over the next few weeks, and landscaping will be completed over the next month.
“Though all of the Maryland FiRST equipment should be installed and ready to go by the end of August, this site is part of a greater network being built out in the national capital region and southern Maryland counties,” Mulford said. “When this site goes ‘live’ and operational it will be dependent upon the completion of the rest of the network.”
Dale Tibbitts, special assistant to County Executive Mark Elrich, said the county’s emergency communications system is made up of 22 sites. The Olney site is the only one that is co-located on a state tower, which saved the county about $1 million.
The two systems are not interdependent, but when completed will be able to communicate.
“Our goal is December 2020, but everything will have to go absolutely right to meet that deadline,” he said. “Right now, we are still on target.”
Some of the other county sites are in various stages of completion, but the Olney tower will be the last one, Tibbitts said.
Community outraged over lack of transparency
When first learning about the tower during the summer of 2018, area residents raised concerns over how the tower might impact their health and their property values, and expressed anger over the lack of transparency and opportunity for public input.
Approximately 350 people turned out for a March 2019 meeting with state and county officials – months after the community had requested a public gathering – and made it clear they did not want the tower and felt cheated that no one knew the Olney site was being considered.
In April 2019, Elrich (D) and State Highway Administrator Greg Slater told the community that the proposed location was “off the table” and that they would seek alternative sites.
However, just two months later, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced that the tower would be built as planned at the Georgia Avenue site near the Intercounty Connector (ICC/Route 200).
Having an impact on the final size of the tower provides some consolation to those who had opposed the project as originally proposed.
Jeffrey Weiler, president of the nearby The Preserve at Small’s Nursery Homeowners Association, said the original plan was for the base to be 31 feet to support the original planned 368-foot-tall structure.
“When community leaders asked the State Highway Administration and county personnel to justify why such a tall structure was needed, it was conceded that a 250-foot-tall tower would suffice and that is what was built,” he said.
Weiler said that because the tower is tapered as it goes up, the change allowed for the structure to be built with a base width about half of what it would have been with the 368-foot-tall tower.
“The effect is that the whole structure is much less imposing than what it would have been with the original plan,” he said. “Those people that worked to try to stop the construction of the tower at Georgia Avenue did some good here and should be proud that they made a difference.”
Robert Zimmerman, president of the Brooke Manor Estates Homeowners Association, agrees.
“Even though the tower does not fit the landscape or surrounding neighborhood, thanks to the efforts of the community, the tower is not as high or as imposing as it was first planned to be,” he said.
However, Zimmerman expressed concern that there was no further communication from the project team or first responders to the community on the final tower design or schedule once Hogan gave the green light for the Georgia Avenue site.
“We sure wish the project team had not taken an antagonistic approach to community input and involvement,” he said.
Zimmerman also questioned the concerns that the new communication tower implementation was urgent due to outages in the existing system and that community involvement would delay a needed upgrade.
“Yet, there have been no reported emergency system outages in the past year,” he said. “We all wonder if this was a made up emergency to benefit special interests.”
Zimmerman said residents, especially mothers, are asking the state and county to monitor the tower to ensure there are no harmful effects to those living nearby.
“We hope this enhances emergency response times and the safety of all first responders,” he said.
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