“I think we are getting off track and starting to talk about cell towers again.”
Mayor Jim Brown made that statement over and over again at Monday night’s commission meeting during discussion of a telecommunications agenda item about Comprehensive Plan amendments being transmitted to the state for review.
The attempts, though, were futile. Both commissioners and Key residents turned the agenda item into a two-hour debate about cell towers on Longboat Key.
Planning, Zoning and Building Director Robin Meyer explained that two amendments to the Comp Plan would do the following:
• Add language that talks about towers being the least-preferred form of wireless service facilities on the Key.
• Add language back into the Comp Plan that states personal wireless service facilities (all forms of cellular-communication equipment) are not subject to height limitations within the town’s code, and those height restrictions would be addressed at a later date in the town’s land development height regulation.
But, addressing a height mandate for wireless structures, which include towers, at a later date didn’t sit well with commissioners or approximately 20 north-end Key residents in attendance.
Town Manager Dave Bullock explained that sending the changes to Tallahassee officials for review is a 30-day process. If the state approved the changes, both the Planning and Zoning Board and the Town Commission would hold public hearings to address the height restrictions at that time.
But several commissioners weren’t comfortable with the setup.
“We’re putting the cart before the horse,” Commissioner Jack Duncan said.
Duncan and others thought Bullock should continue to explore communication issues with cellular providers and report back to the commission before submitting Comp Plan changes.
The debate quickly turned into a cell-tower issue, though, and a discussion about whether the Comp Plan changes needed to be made.
“We can make height restrictions on towers without banning them,” said Commissioner Phill Younger.
Key residents and attorneys also took to the podium to discuss towers.
“Why change the existing Comp Plan at all?” asked former mayor and north-end resident Jeremy Whatmough.
Longbeach Village residents made their voices heard, too.
“We don’t have obligations to provide optimal profit margins for cell-tower providers,” said Village resident Gene Jaleski.
Attorney Michael Furen questioned whether the Comp Plan changes should be made in the summer months when many residents are gone, a comment that upset some commissioners.
“I’m tired of this argument about doing business when no one is here,” said Commissioner Terry Gans. “Unless we amend our charter to say we only do business from December through April, we’re open for business all year.”
Debates about whether cellular service was non-existent in some areas of the Key also raged.
But the debate always came back to a tower.
“This is more than about height, it’s about the height of a great big pole sticking out of the ground,” Duncan said. “I am totally in support of improving cellular communication, and I’m against a cell tower because of what it does to aesthetics and property value.”
Brown made another remark about getting off track before offering a Comp Plan amendment solution that all seven commissioners agreed could be sent to the state.
Brown suggested adding back in the Comp Plan’s prior telecommunications language and deleting most of what town staff offered as changes.
Although some still believe the Comp Plan changes are being made too quickly, Duncan said the new language is more general in nature and doesn’t guide the town down a certain telecommunications path.
“I’m as guilty as anyone else of circulating back toward the tower argument, and it’s not really about that,” Duncan said. “The commission needs to start focusing on what the long-term strategic telecommunications plan is for the Key.”
On Tuesday, Duncan said the commission could clear up the issue town-wide if it made a joint declaration.
“Why can’t we all agree no one wants a tower on a prestigious island like Longboat Key?” Duncan asked. “Let’s take it off the table and figure out how we can solve the problem with the cellular companies using other alternatives.”