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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
In the year since the community learned that the state was planning to erect a nearly 350-foot-tall communication tower at Georgia Avenue and the Intercounty Connector, the plan has come full circle.
When first learning about the tower last summer, 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.
In April, County Executive Marc 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.
That came as welcome news to the community, but their victory was short-lived.
On July 3, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) wrote to the International Association of Fire Fighters, assuring the organization that the radio tower will be built as originally planned at Georgia Avenue (Route 97) and the Intercounty Connector (ICC/Route 200).
“While certain local officials have expressed concern over the location of the tower, our administration remains committed to providing our emergency responders with the tools necessary to adequately protect our communities,” Hogan writes. “We will advance this needed radio tower for MD FiRST at the ICC and Georgia Avenue site.”
Dale Tibbitts, special assistant to Elrich, said that because the tower is being built by the state, it has ultimate authority on location. The county also plans to place its equipment on the state tower, saving about $1 million by doing so.
“We have no veto in the process,” he said.
Tibbitts said that Elrich and Slater had agreed to pursue alternate locations and were studying the feasibility of so-called Site 7, located about a half-mile away from the original location.
When asked if the county was still pushing for Site 7, Tibbitts said the state representatives “have made it pretty clear” that the tower is going to be located at the ICC site, so the county cannot pursue alternative sites if the state is not a willing partner.
“We need to have the state’s contractor on board,” he said. “The state owns the land, so the county has no access to it without the state’s participation. We are disappointed that we couldn’t find an acceptable alternative location.”
State Sen. Ben Kramer (D-Dist. 19), who has led the charge to change the site on behalf of his constituents, called Hogan’s comments “very disturbing and frustrating.”
“One, he chose to weigh in on the issue, and two, his commentary is based on false information, which I find troubling,” he said.
Kramer said he contacted Hogan’s office to share facts and followed up with a letter seeking a face-to-face meeting with the governor. As of The Greater Olney News press time, Kramer had not received a response.
“His [Hogan’s] administrator made a commitment to me and the community that the tower would not be built at the original proposed location,” he said. “Now the governor flipflops on that promise. I find that terribly disappointing. I am still going to do my best to push back on this and do it properly.”
Kramer shared a letter dated July 12 and sent to the county by Motorola, the vendor of the new emergency communication system, which is set to be in place by December of next year.
The system was designed with 22 towers. County officials had asked Motorola whether the system could be implemented without the Olney site, which would be added once a suitable location was found.
The letter states that with the ICC tower removed, 21 towers would result in a county-wide reliability of 93.7 percent. With all 22 towers, the coverage would be 95 percent.
The current 11-site system provides coverage at 85.8 percent.
“The county would obviously make any accommodations to compensate for that, just as they have been doing with the existing inferior system that has far less coverage, even when functioning at its best, and it hasn’t been functioning at its best,” Kramer said.
When Olney residents learned of the proposed tower, they reached out to the county asking for information, a meeting and a chance to discuss the tower, which state and county officials had been planning since 2006.
Officials from the Montgomery County Department of Technology Services, Maryland Department of Information Technology and Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration finally held a meeting in March, drawing nearly 400 residents who made it clear they wanted a say in the matter, and had they been included in the site selection process from the beginning, would have helped the county and state find an appropriate site, even if the tower were placed in their community.
Vandalized, stolen signs are symbols of heated debate
The Brooke Manor community, located adjacent to the Georgia/ICC site, has vocalized its opposition since learning of the proposed tower last summer.
The community posted four tower-related signs — two in March and two in June — which were all removed and/or destroyed. The signs were posted on homeowners association property along Georgia Avenue.
Some were removed, some were slashed and others were stuffed in nearby bushes.
The vandalism was reported to the police.
“The tower has gotten to be a heated issue for people to do this,” said Robert Zimmerman, president of the Brooke Manor Homeowners Association. “But the bigger issue is our so-called elected officials. One is spouting off for political reasons, our councilwoman is missing in action and our governor went against a promise made by his state administrator. It’s almost like something else — special interest or politics — is driving this issue. It’s odd that there is such pressure to build at this site when there is another potential site one-half mile away.”
Many residents have asked why the state or the previous county administration did not release substantial information on its search for new tower locations in the decade or more it has been working on replacing the public safety system. Some also question why meetings requested by the community last year were not held until March. Others have questioned whether last year, an election year, played a role in keeping the information from residents.
“There is something more behind this, which is why the politicians don’t want to listen,” Zimmerman added. The community will continue to fight because this is our community.”
Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) said her office has been involved with the issue since becoming aware of it last July when some residents received a notice of a public meeting from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) shortly before a scheduled Planning Board hearing to discuss the proposed tower.
“My office remained in contact with the residents in that area, particularly the Greater Olney Civic Association,” she said. “When they shared that Park and Planning had some challenges with outreach, we contacted M-NCPCC and the County Executive’s Office to inquire about the distribution list that they used, and I was instrumental, along with the state delegation, in ensuring that the community was given an opportunity to provide input on this matter.”
She said she has continued to raise this issue with Elrich “as one of importance to me and my constituents.”
She said she made sure one of her senior legislative aides attended the March 5 meeting between the community and officials on the state and county levels because she had a public hearing to attend the same evening.
On June 18, the joint Public Safety and Government Operations and Fiscal Policy committees met to receive a briefing on the issue following system outages on Mother’s Day.
“In my role as council president, I made sure this meeting was scheduled in a timely manner,” Navarro said.
She said the same day the council received a letter to Elrich from the International Association of Fire Fighters expressing its concern over the delays in confirming the final two sites and affirming its position in supporting the 22-site design. The letter followed one to Hogan’s office asking him to move forward with the tower at the Georgia Avenue/ICC location.
“After learning of the dire condition of the county’s emergency system, my colleagues and I sent a letter to the executive asking that he deliver a replacement public safety radio system that meets the 95/95 standard by fall 2020,” Navarro said.
The measurement of 95/95 means the system will provide 95 percent coverage for 95 percent of the time.
County Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) said that public safety personnel, whose lives depend on the radio system, are saying they cannot afford to delay the replacement of a system, which is already starting to fail.
“I have studied the options,” he said. “Any alternative site will delay full implementation of the project, potentially by a year or more, and will likely cost millions of additional taxpayer dollars. While I regret the angst this tower has caused for some members of the community, delaying the tower would put thousands of Olney residents at unnecessary risk.”
Several weeks ago, following a Tweet by Hogan regarding the tower, Elrich issued a statement, which reads in part:
“The consideration of alternate sites for two of the planned towers in no way jeopardizes the public safety system today. In fact, my administration has taken significant steps to strengthen the existing system and improve its stability so that people are safe.”
He added: “To be clear, I will never compromise the safety of the people of Montgomery County.”
The Greater Olney Civic Association (GOCA) had invited Navarro, Riemer and other council members, to meet with the organizations, and chose a date of July 17 based on the schedule and recommendation of Navarro and Riemer. A week before that meeting, Navarro and Riemer said they could not attend, so the meeting was postponed. GOCA hopes to reschedule.
Tibbitts said the County Council scheduled a pending hearing and vote on a Capital Improvements Program (CIP) amendment, which will dictate whether the county executive must build at the Georgia Avenue/ICC site, for July 30. To testify at the hearing, sign up by 5 p.m. July 29 at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/council/phsignup.html or call 240-777-7803.
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