After missing a week due to the snow day last week, MACo’s legislative group had to pull double duty this week to catch up on all the bills counties needed to consider. We heard briefings on 44 different pending pieces of legislation in Annapolis. It is still fascinating to see some of the peculiar ideas for laws that cross the desk. Fortunately, most legislation is thought-provoking and addresses issues that deserve serious debate.
One problem that we have heard about and tried to mitigate for years is the pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. There are many reasons for the poor health of the Bay, but one major reason that was identified several years ago is the problem that stems from the Conowingo Dam. Phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment run off and flow down from Pennsylvania and New York through the Susquehanna River to the top of the Bay. Over the past 90 years, those nutrients have accumulated, so the reservoir is full and can’t trap them anymore. When we have storms and overflow, the pollution ends up in our Chesapeake Bay.
HB921 Conowingo Dam – Water Quality Certification would require the Department of the Environment (MDE), as part of its approval process for the relicensing of the Dam (owned by Exelon), to mandate some actions from the applicant. This would include requiring the applicant to meet specific conditions related to the removal of trash and debris from the reservoir and make this an emergency measure. Many may remember last summer, when all kinds of debris ended up in the Annapolis Harbor. That event may have spurred the legislators to act. This bill, supported by MACo, has a strong bipartisan sponsor line.
This is the type of legislation that is good to work on, when all sides can agree that a problem exists and hold those accountable in the process. We do recognize that Exelon did not create the nutrient buildup nor the debris; however, they do need to help in fixing this problem. We also need the support of the federal government, in holding those other states accountable (under the Clean Water Act) in reducing the nutrients that are being released into the river and end up here. Maryland has been working hard and spending an enormous amount of money to clean up the Bay; we need partners to help.
There’s another topic that has been the recent source of much discussion and consternation. Small cell technology is something that is coming in order to implement 5G service. So, what is 5G? Let’s start with what is 3G, which means connecting your computer to the internet. 4G means connecting your smartphone to the internet. 5G means connecting everything to the internet. Estimates project that we will grow from 2 or 3 connected devices per person to 40-100 connected devices per person.
What everyone is beginning to learn about are the “boxes” that are required for this technology and how many will be needed. These boxes, or “small cells,” can be up to 28 cubic feet in size – that’s the size of a refrigerator! Small cells could be mounted anywhere, to any pole, to any building, and there would need to be so many of them (100-150 feet apart), all within line of sight, it would be a tremendous eyesore to our communities. All of this with NO authority of the local government to control where they go. Further complicating the matter is that much of this has gone into effect already, so that many Counties and Municipalities are seeking a stay on the order by the FCC.
There are two competing bills in front of the legislature this session. They are very different in their impact on local government. HB654/SB937 Wireless Facilities – Installation and Regulation is the bill that was sponsored by the industry. They would not have to comply with ANY of our local zoning laws. And they also would not pay us more than $100 for the “antenna” when the national average is $1500. It allows them to deploy these boxes with access “by right” and completely ignore our local zoning process. The bill doesn’t require them to service underserved areas, which is where the rural counties need it most. There are many other aspects of the bill that are detrimental to the counties and municipalities, but this should give you a sense of the problem.
By contrast, HB1020/SB713 Wireless Facilities – Permitting and Siting is the bill strongly supported by MACo. It is a community coalition bill that preserves local zoning codes. It establishes requirements for the permitting, installation, regulation and design standards of wireless telecommunications facilities in the State. It would apply only to poles owned by government, not to poles owned by utilities. It also creates a “Digital Inclusion Fund” to support deployment in underserved areas, which would be very important to Talbot County and other rural areas.
So why did I just give you this long explanation of 5G Small Cell technology? It’s not just because of the impact of this legislation, but to give you a broader perspective of what we need to be aware of. Sometimes it’s not the State passing spending mandates down to the counties or trying to usurp our local autonomy that creates problems. Sometimes it is an Industry that is overstepping its bounds, sponsoring legislation that makes a mockery of our permits and our local zoning, just because they don’t want the expense and hassle.
Laura Price is on the Executive Board of Directors of MACo, the legislative liaison and member of the Talbot County Council.