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Small Cell Antennas in the City's Rights-of-Way


As a result of increased demand for wireless broadband service and developments in wireless communications technology, cellular service providers have begun installing small short-range antennas as part of their network. While the Montgomery County Zoning Ordinance regulates the installation of antennas on private property in the City, City legislation is necessary to regulate installations in our rights-of-way.

Federal law requires that local governments allow the installation of small antennas and related equipment in their rights-of-way and limits their authority to regulate the installations and the fees they may charge for installation permit applications, for use of the right of way, and for attachment to government-owned poles.

Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress prohibits state or local regulations that “prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of an entity to provide telecommunications service.” On September 26, 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued an order providing an expansive interpretation of the preemptive scope of the 1996 Act.

First, the FCC ruled that delays in approving antenna installation applications constitute a prohibition on the provision of service and imposed “shot clocks” of sixty days for the issuance of permits to attach antennas to existing structures and ninety days for the issuance of permits to install new antenna support structures.

Second, the FCC ruled that fees charged by local governments for permit application review and recurring fees for use of the right-of-way and use of government-owned structures in the right-of-way are limited to the cost the local government incurs to review the permit and to maintain its rights-of-way and support structures. It deemed the following fees to be presumptively permissible: $500 for an application to attach one to five antennas to an existing pole; $1,000 for an application to install a new pole; and $270 per year for use of the right-of-way and attachment to a government-owned pole. (As a result, higher fees may be subject to legal challenge.)

Third, the FCC ruled that aesthetic requirements imposed by local governments for the installation of antennas and support structures must be “(1) reasonable, (2) no more burdensome than those applied to other types of infrastructure deployments, and (3) objective and published in advance.” The vagueness of these limitations, and the requirement that aesthetic standards, an inherently subjective issue, be “objective,” makes it difficult to anticipate permissible aesthetic requirements.

The City of Takoma Park is under the zoning authority of Montgomery County. At the moment, current Montgomery County zoning laws in residential areas requires that: a) new poles and replacement poles are considered telecommunication towers and must be set back 300 ft from a dwelling and b) antennas on existing structures must be setback 60 ft. The County was considering changes to this and other requirements for cell towers but that ZTA has been tabled and is not expected to be considered further by the current County Council.

Contact Info

Jason Damweber
Deputy City Manager
Phone: 301-891-7202
Email: jasond@takomaparkmd.gov

Proposed Amendments to City Code

Our goal and the purpose of the City ordinance regarding a permitting process for cell towers is to protect the residents of Takoma Park. The City can regulate some aspects of cell tower installation, such as the location, placement, aesthetics, notification process, and fees. Montgomery County zoning codes govern where wireless telecommunication facilities can be sited generally and governs setbacks from dwellings. Takoma Park City can establish a permitting process to ensure that any small cell towers or antennas, permitted by the County for placement in Takoma Park, meet certain safety and aesthetic requirements. Since the City is under County zoning rules, we want to add an additional layer of protection in the City. Putting in place a permitting process where currently there is none is good stewardship. The City Council is taking these proactive steps to maintain our leverage in possible negotiations with carriers.

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