The Longboat Island Chapel membership voted 52-16 in favor of letting a cellular tower lease on its property expire July 26.
The congregation held a special members-only meeting Sunday, April 14, to vote on whether to approve an extension of a three-year lease agreement for a 150-foot cell tower to be built on the church property or to let the lease expire.
In a press release Monday, the chapel membership said, “The majority vote by members was to let the lease expire.”
Chapel Board of Trustees President Larry Steagall called the meeting “calm and collected.”
“It’s the first time the membership had a vote, and they made their voices heard,” Steagall said.
Jim Eatrides, owner of Alpha Omega Communications LLC, and Kevin Barile, a project partner with Ridan Industries LLC, have been working on placing a tower on the north end of the Key for more than four years to bridge a cellular-coverage gap on the north end. They both called the membership vote “extremely disappointing” Monday.
The previous chapel board approved the lease three years ago.
Eatrides and Barile said that since the board was modified, they had had a lack of communication from board members regarding the lease.
Eatrides and Barile strategically put their application to place a 150-foot cellular tower at the property on hold in November 2011, to allow the town to make telecommunications changes to its Comprehensive Plan and ordinance.
“We have been ready for almost 18 months now to resubmit our zoning application to the town, but have been unable to do so because we needed the church to sign certain forms of our application,” Barile said.
Although a new proposed draft telecommunications ordinance, which will come before the Planning and Zoning Board next month, adds the Public Safety Complex site at 5460 Gulf of Mexico Drive as a site to place a tower, Eatrides and Barile said the chapel site at 6200 Gulf of Mexico Drive remains the only viable option.
The draft ordinance requires tower applicants to prove other cellular alternatives can’t be used before a tower can be considered for the Key. The cost of other alternatives, according to that draft ordinance, can’t be considered.
Planning, Zoning and Building Director Robin Meyer told the Planning and Zoning Board Tuesday the chapel’s decision “has no bearing” on the town’s draft ordinance the board will discuss next month.
The chapel’s decision frustrated some during Tuesday’s planning board meeting.
Planning, Zoning and Building Chairwoman B.J. Webb said if she needs emergency help on the north end of the island while she’s riding her bicycle, she can’t rely on it.
“At the top of the list of things we do as elected and public officials is to watch out for the health, welfare and safety of the entire community,” said Webb, who suggested the Town Commission could do more to find a way to get better service on the Key. “I hope to hell we get serious about making this island safe for everyone.”
Former Mayor George Spoll called the chapel’s decision “a huge disappointment for the people of Longboat Key.”
For those residents who live near the proposed tower, though, the chapel membership’s decision was a victory.
“The vote is a lovely thing,” said Doreen Erickson, who, along with her husband, Gus Sclafani, has opposed a tower from the start. “No one wants a tower near their home, where they work or where they worship.”
Ron Platt, who lives across the street from the chapel, said he also thought the chapel made the right decision.
“This area and Longboat Key as a whole, for that matter, is not the right place for a tower,” Platt said.
Barile said he and Eatrides spent more than $200,000 in third-party expenses on the project, which doesn’t count the hundreds of hours they both spent on the project.
“We burned through a good portion of our three-year lease trying to resell the project to the new church board and the membership,” Barile said. “We feel we have been fair and patient, and we feel we have a good amount of legal recourse against the chapel.”
Barile said the lease that expires in July specifically states the chapel “can approve and design layouts and where it sits on the property, but they can’t refuse to execute our application forms like they did by stalling us for so long.”
Eatrides said the chapel “stonewalled” them.
“We have been fully committed to the church to make this happen,” Eatrides said. “Under their obligation, it says they will do nothing to undermine or interfere with our tower development.
“The bottom line is we are going to take every legal recourse possible, every legal remedy we can take.”
Eatrides and Barile are under contract to erect a tower in Bradenton Beach no later than the first quarter of 2014 and are submitting a proposal to build a tower in the city of Anna Maria. A tower in either city, though, will not help reception on the Key.
“It’s disappointing that Longboat has avoided facing this issue for years to the detriment of the Key’s residents, visitors and workers,” Eatrides said. “While Longboat Key is becoming more and more isolated and out of touch, nearby communities, like Bradenton Beach, are moving forward into the 21st century.”