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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
County Executive Marc Elrich expressed deep frustration with the status of the 349-foot-tall communications tower proposed for Georgia Avenue near the Intercounty Connector in Olney.
At a Jan. 10 press conference, Elrich (D) reiterated several times how “frustrated” he is with the project and its process.
He 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 are 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 gave an example of a community meeting held in an Olney school where communications signals could not reach from inside the school to outside the school.
“That’s a problem,” he said. “I am frustrated because had they fully vetted this with the community, then it would have been a lot easier to adjust sites. 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.
“Those sites are left because that is where the rest of the towers would communicate to — they fill a hole,” he added. “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.”
The Greater Olney Civic Association (GOCA) first learned about the project in the summer when Jeff Weiler, president of The Preserve at Small’s Nursery homeowner’s association, received a postcard in the mail, announcing a public hearing on the project.
Weiler shared the information with GOCA and elected officials, who had no 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 during the fall.
Last week, Darien Manley, the Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the public meeting has been moved to March, due to scheduling conflicts.
The date and location had not been confirmed by press time.
In the meantime, Elrich said at the Jan. 10 press conference that he will continue to work with the state and to look for other options. State and county equipment would use the tower.
“But I am frustrated, because they knew about this a year ago and did virtually no work on it,” Elrich said.
If work had been done, he said, he would not be in the situation where he is being told to make a decision.
“I really apologize to the communities that I may be forced to make a decision that I probably wish I didn’t have to make, but I feel like I can’t afford to have a system with holes in it,” Elrich said. “I hope people understand that at the end of the day, I have to provide public safety to people, and the thought of the system failing would be a real disaster for us.”
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.
The system deployment in Montgomery County is underway and the state worked with its county partners to identify existing communications towers that could be used to support the new system.
When no existing options were determined to be suitable, the search began for an available state-owned site in the area.
In November, GOCA passed a resolution opposing the installation of the 349-foot tower at Georgia Avenue (Route 97) and the Intercounty Connector (Route 200), and has sent its position to elected officials, requesting their support.
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,” he said. “The only concession, to date, is that the county has acknowledged that the tower might be sufficient at a height of 250 feet as opposed to the original proposed height, approximately 100 feet taller. While not finalized, it does appear that the ICC/97 location is looming large as the likely location to be selected.”
Earlier this month, GOCA delivered another letter to Elrich, reiterating its position and requesting that a thorough review be given to alternate placement sites.
“Georgia Avenue is the gateway to our town center and many of the residential neighborhoods that are part of GOCA,” the letter reads. “The installation of such an imposing tower, approximately two-thirds the size of the Washington Monument, is an eyesore to our central boulevard and the adjoining residential communities.”
GOCA President William “Billy” Becker said he and others who spoke to Elrich at a candidates’ event hosted by the civic association in October were under the impression that Elrich was supportive of their concerns.
The letter implores Elrich’s continued support on the matter. It also references the Olney Master Plan, updated in 2005, which includes “protect the residential character of Georgia Avenue between Norbeck Road and Town Center as a green corridor and gateway to Olney.”
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