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Community concerned tower decision is made without public participation –

by Terri Hogan

Senior Staff Writer

Members of the community believe that a decision has been made to construct a large public safety radio tower at the Intercounty Connector and Georgia Avenue in Olney, despite efforts to halt the project, or at least have some say in the matter.

County and state officials could not be reached for comment or confirmation by press time after repeated attempts.

Some Olney-area resident received a notice in the mail that reads: “Montgomery County Department of Technology Services, the Maryland Department of Information Technology, and the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration will hold a community meeting to discuss a Public Safety Radio Tower to be located inside the northwest cloverleaf of the Intercounty Connector (ICC) at Georgia Avenue.”
The meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. March 5 at Cashell Elementary School, 17101 Cashell Road.

According to the notice, county and state representatives will provide information at the meeting about how the site was chosen, what the county and state’s public safety radio systems are used for and reasons why a new tower is required at this location.

They will also provide diagrams of the planned tower site and photo simulations showing what the tower will look like from various locations in the surrounding area.

Jeff Weiler, president of The Preserve at Small’s Nursery homeowner’s association, believes the wording on the notice is indicative of a decision, and calls it “more of the same.”

He is frustrated that the project has been forced on the community with no opportunity for input.

“These people think they are the experts and don’t want us to get in their way,” he said. “Public involvement is not desired.”

Weiler has asked repeatedly to see the analysis that showed what other sites were considered and has made suggestions of specific nearby sites for consideration.

“I have no problem with them upgrading the system — that’s a good thing. But the system is not failing. If it were, that would be news.”

He added, “They have put time and money into locating the tower at this site, so they are reluctant to step back. I think they’ve lied to the people, including [County Executive Marc] Elrich.”

The community first learned about the project last summer when Weiler received a postcard in the mail announcing a public hearing on the project.

Weiler shared the information with the Greater Olney Civic Association (GOCA) and state elected officials who had no prior knowledge of the project.

After the community voiced its concern regarding the lack of public input, State Highway Administration officials announced they would cancel the hearing and hold a public information meeting in the fall.

Darien Manley, Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (SHA) director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the public meeting was moved to March due to scheduling conflicts.

In November, GOCA passed a resolution opposing the installation of the 349-foot-tall tower at the proposed location, and communicated its position to elected officials, requesting their support.

GOCA President William “Billy” Becker said everyone understands the need to have the best available emergency communications services but there are concerns over the height of the proposed tower and the location, which is “the gateway to Olney.”

Sen. Benjamin Kramer (D-Dist. 19) of Derwood said he and Sen. Craig Zucker (D-Dist. 14) of Brookeville have had extensive conversations with state and county personnel.

“Sen. Zucker and I have continued to express our concern with the inappropriateness of a tower at the ICC/97 location,” Kramer wrote in a recent email to Weiler.

At a media event on Jan. 10, the county executive voiced his frustration over how the process has been handled and issued an apology to the community for “having to make a decision that he wished he didn’t have to make.”

At that time, Elrich said the decision as to where to place the tower has 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.

“I am frustrated because had they fully vetted this with the community, then it would have been a lot easier to adjust sites,” he said on Jan. 10. “Now, I am left with two sites where there is community opposition, but moving those two sites could mean having to relay out the rest of the system.”

He added, “Those sites are left because that is where the rest of the towers would communicate to — they fill a hole. If I move it, I may have a different hole, which means I have to move a different tower. If I move a different tower, that may mean another tower. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is because this just unwinds to affect every tower. And I can’t afford to have this system go down.”

According to SHA documents, the State of Maryland is implementing a statewide public-safety communications system known as Maryland FiRST.

The system provides seamless, interoperable communications at large-scale events and provides a common communications platform that is available to all local, state and federal public safety agencies that operate within the state.

Several officials from the Maryland State Highway Administration and the county’s Department of Technology Services and a spokesman in county’s Office of Public Information did not return phone calls and emails by The Greater Olney News press time.

SHA spokeswoman Lora Rakowski, answering an email sent by The Greater Olney News to Darien Manley of SHA, referred questions to the county.

“Montgomery County would be the go-to contact for any specifics about the meeting,” she said.

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