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Palm-Aire residents bring cell tower battle to commission

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BRADENTON - Palm-Aire residents sent their message and it went through, but the fight is just beginning.

Standing outside the commission chambers on Tuesday after members voted 7-0 to bring back a resolution from last year on cell towers in residential communities, Deborah Chapman was somewhat satisfied, though others seemed disappointed.

"We reached our goal of getting it put on next week's agenda," she said. Still, that may not affect the effort of the Palm-Aire Country Club to erect a cell phone tower near the homes of community residents.

On Nov. 4, 2008, the residents of the River Club development fought against a cell tower and all seven commissioners voted in favor of a resolution to limit cell tower installations to government property, then non-residential, and then only residential as a last resort, Chapman said.

John Costello, the general manager of the Palm-Aire Country Club, said Tuesday that the club's board of governors has looked at it thoroughly and in their judgment the tower would not be a detriment to the community.

Positive aspects of the tower, he said, would include better cell phone coverage.

The location that Vertex, the tower company, chose was picked because it would provide the best coverage reach, offered minimal obstructions and had access to a road and electricity.

"The agreement was signed in December 2008 and communicated to club members at annual meetings and in board meeting minutes," Costello said. He would not say how much the club would be paid.

Bringing back November resolution

It seemed to be a frustrating meeting for the residents, who wore buttons protesting the cell tower plan, because the County Commission said there wasn't much it could do except bring back the resolution passed in November regarding cell towers in residential communities and try to get it into the land development code. Even then, such a change would not affect the tower that is currently planned.

"We're here today, not specifically to have a hearing on the tower, because the application has yet to be filed," Chapman said. "We're here today to ask Manatee County to define in their land use ordinance regulation of cell towers, something that is needed in our county and mostly missing.

"Communities across the United States have successfully written land use codes to regulate this proliferation of cell towers, and we understand the need for cell towers, but Manatee County is lacking any way to regulate that.

"Our position is that they do not belong in the middle of residential communities on residentially zoned land."

Speaking before the meeting, Jim Dias said he did not want the tower. "It's a home community, and I don't think we need a cell tower in our community," he said. "They have other places that they can go. I don't think it should be in our community."

The association is a private country club, Chapman said, and there is opposition to the club's action. "They say they are investigating their legal options in terms of going after the country club."

One by one, Palm-Aire residents addressed the commissioners on the issue.

"We understand that under Florida law, you cannot comment on the proposed Palm-Aire tower," Madison Chapman said. "However, you can respond to the question of cell towers in general."

She said commissioners should not be surprised that residents are angry that a "15-story, radiation-emitting structure" is planned for a residential community.

Albert Briggs, a former president of the homeowners association who has lived there for 14 years, said the tower has become a divisive issue.

"People who went to the first meeting with me on Tuesday night were members of the club," he said. "They came away with the idea in mind that this is a great revenue source for the club. I came away with the idea in mind that we are sacrificing too much in order for a short-term gain. I think the club should focus on its business activities rather than this one-time situation where revenue is coming from something like a cell tower itself."

Beatrice Hanson, president of the Links communities, said the tower will affect he beauty of the area and will ruin property values.

"The residents do not want to see a 150-foot tower," she said. "There are many non-resident areas where this can be erected, empty lots and commercial property where this tower can go."

Buyers would not even look at the area if there's a tower nearby, she warned. "The value of our homes will plummet, when we are desperate for a buyer. I believe the board of Palm-Aire Country Club is doing an injustice to their members that live in the surrounding area. A tall, ugly tower will be in our neighborhood," she said.

"If the county allows a tower in a residential zone, the precedent will be set. Many more towers will be popping up, perhaps next in your backyard," she warned the commissioners. "If this tower is erected, it will destroy the Links at Palm-Aire's environment. An ordinance change will keep this from happening in our community."

Going before a hearing officer

Palm-Aire is in Commissioner Donna Hayes's district, and she said she had been received phone calls and e-mails about the issue. Hayes read from a report she had received Tuesday morning

In February 2009, the applicant attended a meeting, she said, and it was determined that the project would require a special permit, requiring one public hearing before a hearing officer.

"It is a special permit," Hayes said. "It does not come before us for a hearing."

The applicant held a meeting on Sept. 8 and 400 letters went out, she said. The report said 40 to 50 people came and 30 to 40 people were in favor.

At that, several people began to express dismay.

This may not come before the County Commission, Hayes said, because it's a special permit, and they should address their comments there.

"At this point, the County Commission can do nothing," she said. "We have a due process to follow, and at this point this is the due process."

Commissioner Joe McClash said the code should have been amended to comply with the board's intention, and he made a motion to ask county administrator to work with county attorney to have the resolution put on the agenda next week as a code amendment. That was seconded by Hayes.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she had gone to a meeting with a cell tower company in Perico.

Of the Palm-Aire situation, she said, "It sounds like the country club did it, it's a revenue source for them, you are going to have public meetings, and the only criteria the cell tower companies care about is that you're within a two-mile radius."

Persuade them to move it elsewhere

Her advice? Look at where you are, and encourage them to move it somewhere else.

"I told this person who called me, 'Don't just say you don't want it. Figure out an option. You guys live there; you know where it could go,' " she said. "This may not be a good thing, but try and turn it around and make it positive and find a place that would be better for everybody. That's what I would suggest."

"If we pass this ordinance now and bring it back next time," Hayes asked County Attorney Tedd Williams, "will this affect what we're discussing here now?"

Commission Chairman Gwendolyn Brown said that the thing to do was to have more discussion, and Williams said that could happen at next week's meeting.

"We need to make it very clear to these folks and all the folks in Palm-Aire. If we do move forward - we approved the motion and I supported it - but if this should come back, and if I understand the comments Mr. Williams made, this would not affect this application," Hayes said. "Because this application hasn't come in yet."

After the vote, Madison Chapman said the fight against the tower will continue regardless of what happens.

"We're trying to fight it as many ways as we can," she said.


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