MANATEE COUNTY — Palm-Aire resident Deborah Chapman will be holding her breath as county planning staff review an application for a telecommunications tower at the heart of her community.
Vertex Development, the company planning to build a cell tower in Palm-Aire, has had an application in with the county since October 2009. But by Sept. 15, county planners are due to ask for more information from the applicant or deem the application complete, which would send it to a county hearing officer for final review and approval.
The application is the first to be reviewed under the county’s new telecommunications tower ordinance, which commissioners adopted in February.
Manatee commissioners on Sept. 1 made minor but potentially high-impact changes to the ordinance and chose to keep a provision regarding site preferences.
The first change specifies the county can use the preservation of community aesthetics as a determining factor in whether or not to approve a cell tower application. The second clarifies the procedures by which developments of regional impact should apply for towers, providing those applications specify cell towers as an allowed use. If the tower is not listed as an allowable use, then a developer must “process the required applications regarding the DRI in accordance with applicable state law” before submitting the application to the county for review.
River Club and Palm-Aire residents at the meeting said a third proposed change, which eliminated much of the verbiage from a section on siting preferences, would work against homeowners by taking out specificity.
“We believe modifications to this section have the effect of eliminating core residential protections that weaken the code and its intended purpose to restrict residential tower installations,” said Chapman, founder of Palm-Aire Homeowners Against the Tower. “These edits don’t clarify the code so much as they eviscerate it.”
The change would have eliminated the requirement for a tower applicant to provide detailed documentation that it looked at other sites within its search area, among other requirements.
“We’re very happy the changes for siting preferences was not passed,” Chapman said, noting the co-location and alternative site provisions most benefit residents of Palm-Aire. “Residents feel this is one of the best protections we have.”
Chapman has submitted 10 alternative sites for the tower within a one-mile radius of Vertex’s proposed 150-foot tower at 5625 Whitfield Ave. However, unlike the old code, the new code does not require cellular tower providers to look within a one-mile radius of their proposed site. Now, the provider can define its search radius based on a business decision.
Vertex’ Palm-Aire application shows only a 305-yard radius for its site.
Planning Department Director John Osborne said the changes were meant to strengthen the code, but he did understand some of the concerns raised at the meeting.
“We looked at this as a proactive change,” Osborne said.
Osborne also apologized to residents who said they had not been notified of the pending changes, although they have been active in the process. He said the county would work to improve communication with them in the future.
The county has hired an independent consultant to assist in reviewing cell tower applications, Osborne said.
Manatee commissioners first asked to develop more specific guidelines on the development of telecommunications towers at a Sept. 22 meeting. The new ordinance, which more clearly defines the process by which wireless service facilities can be approved, makes the process more public and also defines the county’s preferred areas for placing cell towers, was adopted in late February with the understanding it would be “cleaned up” at a later date.
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IN OTHER BUSINESS, THE BOARD:
• Approved a request by the Manatee County School Board for a small scale map amendment for a portion of its 195-acre site where Braden River High School is located. Commissioners approved changing the future land use of a 10-acre parcel located about 300 feet north of the northeast corner of State Road 70 and Caruso Road from RES-3 (three dwelling units per gross acre) to ROR (Retail/Office/Residential). Property owned by the School Board immediately south of the parcel is zoned ROR.
• Approved an application by Slab, LLC and Slab Lido for the rezone of 326 acres south of the Braden River and east of Lorraine Road from general agriculture to planned development residential. The board also approved a general development plan for 100 dwelling units — a mix of single-family attached and detached units and multi-family units, as well as a pool and clubhouse on 17 acres in the southern part of the site. A private entrance road, an 18-hole golf course, a clubhouse and accessory structures and tennis courts already exist on the site.
• Approved an application by JG64 to rezone 3.38 acres on the north side of State Road 64, just west of Cypress Creek Boulevard, from suburban agriculture to planned development mixed use. In 2006, the adjacent site to the northeast was rezoned to PDMU to allow for a 105,66-square-foot car dealership and a 372-lot subdivision. The applicant has indicated the property will be used for some type of small neighborhood retail use.