Every so often, legislation is composed in Annapolis which becomes a common cause for which all residents of Carroll County (and Maryland) can support or oppose. In the case of Senate Bill 1188: Wireless Facilities – Permitting and Sitting, the latter is true.The rather mundanely named bill has far-reaching consequences: It strips away the rights of citizens, undermines local government and grows power in the hands of both the state and communications companies. SB 1188 ought to be opposed at every turn.
The legislation aims to create a uniform process for the placing of small cell towers (which amplify cell service signals) in all Maryland counties and municipalities. On the face of it, creating the conditions in which small cell towers can be constructed seems like a good idea — until one actually begins reading the bill. Everything becomes problematic from thereon in, but three especially egregious intentions illustrate the point.
From the very first sentence describing the act, residents are informed that the legislation has “the purpose of prohibiting a local government from entering into certain types of exclusive agreements under certain circumstances.” In other words, a local government will no longer have the wide right to conduct business on its own terms under its own conditions with a communications company in a free market setting when it comes to small cell towers. The town or city will be required to conform to new regulations, even if those regulations contradict established municipal or county regulations.
Further on, SB 1188 declares “that certain uses of land are permitted uses as of right and are not subject to local zoning review or approval.” In other words, a town’s planning and zoning committee, let alone existing zoning codes, will have no bearing on the company and where the company intends to place small cell towers. The rights of local residents and the ownership of private property will be automatically surrendered to the company’s discretion. It is no longer a question of residents’ rights, but corporate motives.
Additionally, SB 1188 will begin “prohibiting a local government from requiring an applicant for a certain permit to provide certain information.” In effect, companies will legally be able to refuse to provide information requested by local government. This is detrimental to openness and transparency, and creates a vacuum for ethical issues and potential power and financial abuses, among others.
These are just three of the many problems with SB 1188 as it directly pertains to the legislation. The use of small cell towers is also misleading. Small cell towers have less to do with their height than with their range. They are among the lesser of technologies currently available for increasing cell service.
Though they are less expensive to produce, they can reach 50 or more feet in height, and the distance they extend signal is measured in feet, not miles. To have strong coverage in a town, a forest of towers will more than likely be necessary.
And yet, these are the towers SB 1188 permits communications companies to install. It is a commodified, Faustian bargain: If a small town or city wishes to improve its cell coverage, it must give up an extraordinary amount of authority to the state and the company. Rather than working to reach a mutually beneficial agreement for both citizen and provider which respects citizens’ rights as things currently exist, SB 1188 by default negates those rights in favor of the company.
The state, which has superseded local rights in favor of the communications industry, then retains the ability to rework the law at will. Predictably, this would be in favor of the technology and the company, not in favor of the citizens or the community.
Alexis de Tocqueville once noted that America functions community by community. So does Maryland. So problematic is SB 1188 that not only does the guardian of communities, the Maryland Municipal League, oppose the bill, but so, too, do the Maryland Association of Counties and Common Cause Maryland. SB 1188 would impose upon all local governments a singular, inflexible system for the installation of small cell towers, denying local rights and government, and the unique character, customs, culture, traditions, historical districts and nature of those municipalities — let alone aesthetics.
In his 1961 essay “America the Beautiful — and Its Desecrators,” social critic Vance Packard wrote with dismay about how billboards crowding along the growing highway system disturbed “thousands of miles of rural scenery in the United States,” with the effect that such settings were “ruined by the jarring presence of commercial signs.” Packard noted that Maryland was one of the states which enacted legislation to curtail billboards. Ironically, Maryland now leads the way in creating the propensity for a new kind of towering metallic structure that would disrupt and jar the fabric of small towns and cities.
Technology can be wonderfully beneficial, but in this instance, the best interests of citizens are not being kept at heart. It does not have to be this way. Taneytown’s mayor and a supermajority of our City Council, myself included, are doing what we can to oppose SB 1188. We do not have to surrender a host of our local freedoms for better cell service. SB 1188 can still be voted down or vetoed by our governor — but it will take all of us to remind Annapolis to do so. And we do not need small cell towers for that.
This article originally ran on carrollcountytimes.com.