A Longboat Key Public Interest Committee (PIC) cellular communications forum held Tuesday, March 23, at the Longboat Key Hilton Beachfront Resort upset some members of the audience and ended abruptly after the forum’s purpose was questioned.
Moderator and forum planner Lenny Landau began the forum by explaining to the approximately 60 people in attendance that he received a lot of criticism from Key residents who didn’t want him to hold the forum.
Part of the reason for the criticism Landau received leading up to the forum was that the only scheduled panelists were Key resident Jimmy Eatrides and Ridan Industries consultant Dana Dulabone.
Eatrides, the owner of Longboat Key-based Alpha Omega Communications, has been engaged by Ridan Industries to study the placement of a cellular phone tower on the north end of the island.
Landau noted several times that the forum is about the issues the town faces regarding cellular communication.
“This is meant to be a constructive evening and it’s not a sales job,” Landau said. “The objective is to describe what wireless communication encompasses, how it’s grown, why it’s important and the potential approaches the town can take.”
Landau said PIC planned the forum because one of the goals in the town’s Vision Plan is that the town’s residents want to create a strategy to create an up-to-date communications infrastructure so residents have full access to advanced communications technology.
Wireless communication is important on the island, Landau said, because it’s becoming the primary means of communication for residents and businesses and the only real means of communication for visitors.
The issues, as Landau pointed out, were the aesthetics and appearance of towers; the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) mentality; impacts on property values; alternative technologies; and town ordinance requirements.
When Dulabone took to the podium, he explained that cellular reception is spotty at best on the north end of the island because there are no tall buildings that can hold antennas, which help to boost reception on the south and middle portions of the 11-mile island.
But as soon as Dulabone began to explain how studies he performed from a test vehicle and in three different types of north-end homes caused “hit-and-miss reception,” some members of the audience began to get upset.
“My cell phone works all day long up and down this Key,” shouted Key resident Bob Crawford.
Dulabone said that it’s great if some residents receive good reception 99% of the time — but not enough.
“But you don’t want to have that one time you can’t make a call,” Dulabone said. “We are trying to give you an honest assessment of the issues here.”
Eatrides, a 10-year island resident who says he can’t get a cell-phone signal in his office or in his north-end home, explained that he founded his company to help design, engineer, install and maintain wireless communication systems.
Eatrides said he wasn’t selling anything, but that stealth towers, which can be camouflaged, would work on the island and sit 120 feet to 160 feet in the air, depending on the number of carriers that use the tower.
But Eatrides was interrupted by former Mayor Jeremy Whatmough, who is concerned a tower will be placed near his home in the 6700 block of Gulf of Mexico Drive.
“Are you recommending a tower for Longboat Key and where should it go?” shouted Whatmough from the back of the room.
Eatrides refused to answer the question before continuing his presentation, which included descriptions on other ways to boost cellular reception, including Distributed Antennas Systems (DAS) and municipal digital infrastructures (MDIs).
But both systems, which Commissioner Gene Jaleski has suggested as tower alternatives, would be difficult to do on Longboat Key, Eatrides said.
Eatrides said DAS, which consists of a series of antennas on utility poles, is not cost effective in low-density areas and would be extremely difficult to get because Florida Power & Light doesn’t want equipment near its high-voltage power lines.
And MDIs, Eatrides, said, are built more for large municipalities that use the network to increase communication between police officers and firefighters.
Eatrides also said femtocells, which work to boost cellular reception in a specific home or business, only work for specific carriers and can cause interference if there are several in one neighborhood.
Eatrides’ presentation led Jaleski to also shout from the back of the room.
“I thought this was an informational presentation,” said Jaleski.
Some residents also said the femtocells they have in their homes on the island work well.
As Landau took to the podium to make closing remarks, he showed the last slide of the presentation, which urged residents to talk to their commissioners about addressing cellular communication at a future workshop.
The slide suggested that if the outcome of a workshop favored towers, the current telecommunications ordinance would need to be revised. And if there were support for another alternative, the slide suggested the town manager should move forward with it.
The slide — and Landau’s comments — however, were met with groans from some members of the audience.
“We already have an ordinance on the books,” yelled Commissioner Robert Siekmann, as people began to get up and leave.
Whatmough also chimed in.
“This has been a good presentation until now,” Whatmough said. “I think you should wrap it up.”
Whitney Beach resident John Sandford said after the meeting he was disappointed with the reactions from the crowd.
“The intent of the meeting was to provide evidence that we have a communication problem,” Sandford said.
“The three men making the presentation deserve an apology for the rudeness displayed.”
Said Landau: “My mission was not to sell cell-phone towers. It was just to educate, and I think we succeeded.”
Contact Kurt Schulteis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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