Cell tower policy shift to ease applications

Editor & Publisher

It is only getting stranger as Longboat Key tries to straighten out its land use codes and form a cogent policy going forward. It is one step forward and two sideways and then a headfirst dive into another snake pit swarming with attorneys, high-pressure applicants and timid Town staffers.

And here we go again — in the guise of protecting the community from legal liability, we are going to allow cell towers in more zoning categories and remove all existing height limitations.

And realize that our current stringent and restrictive cell tower regulation has not been challenged since the adoption of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Also realize that the Town recently completed an objective study at great expense to conclude that towers were the least viable solution and the Town suffers no legal liability under our current restrictive policies.

Also factor in that the Commission has told the community and the Town Manager and the planning staff that it wants to hire an independent planning consultant such as the Urban Land Institute so that the Town’s Comprehensive Plan and zoning codes and land use codes allow and control what our community wishes to allow or control in its various zoning districts. In other words, we stop allowing our codes be written in the face of applicants.

This is the very process that offers Longboat Key a way to stop writing code and zoning law while applications are in the sweaty hands of somebody who is behind the scenes pressuring and buddying up to staff and our legal counsel. It means setting community based policies and sticking with them. That is the clarity taxpayers deserve.

And the Commission has stated clearly just that — it will soon undertake community analysis and planning for the long term — a review of policy and code. But born like a Greek God from the head of Zeus, the Town counsel and staff now say we have to quickly not only write code language so the Hilton application can be considered, but this week we are told we have to quickly write Cell Tower changes to our codes and Comprehensive Plan.

And guess what? Just like the Town wrote codes and laws specifically to try and pass the Key Club redevelopment,  now we are writing codes specific to accommodate the exact size of the proposed Hilton redevelopment. The déjà vu is complete in that Sarasota Attorney John Patterson, who represented the Key Club, represents Hilton.


Incest, anyone?

So in face of all this legal incestuousness and in the face of the promise of objective planning that would bring in outside people who have no vested interest, we are now attempting to modify the rules governing the placement and height of cell towers.

And do not be fooled — if the changes proposed are adopted, we will allow towers in more zoning districts and the proposed changes plan to remove cell towers from any height limitations within the zoning districts as they now exist. We are told new standards will be adopted. Right now, cell towers are only allowed in Institution Zoning districts and are governed by the height limitation in that zone — as they should be.


Drunk vs. prohibition

The proponents of the change say the Town policy today is effectively a prohibition. They say that means the Town could be sued under the Federal Telecommunications Act. Therefore we must, goes the argument, allow at least viable locations and heights that are realistic.

And to be fair to the Town Attorney and manager and current proponents, many say the tough controlling regulations will be in the Town Land Development Regulations. They propose that there will be a hierarchy adopted with the Cell Towers being the least preferred solution. It will be up to the applicant to prove that only a tower of such and such height and at such and such location will solve the problem. The argument is this method allows applications, but provides a legal way to deny the applications.

I get the logic, but the reality is fraught with unreality. These Land Development Regulation are far easier to modify, subjectively interpret and apply than the constraints of a Comprehensive Plan limitation.

Think of the Comp Plan as the Constitution and the LDRs as the local laws reflecting the constitution. By putting in language in the Comp Plan as was suggested, we are making any height tower possible. It will be up to the interpretation of the Commission and staff in the face of an application to determine whether the Tower is suitable.


History offers predictions…

And what will likely happen?  The déjà vu factor is sublime and glaring. One must go back as recently as last year in the Key Club debacle to see how stringently our codes are applied when a Commission decides it wants to approve an application.

And as soon as the approval was found illegal, like a drunk chasing Vodka, the Commissioners pressed on and rewrote the controlling rules to allow the redevelopment.

So the fact that we are now attempting to take the Town out of legal jeopardy by making Tower applications easier is a clear signal that something more is going on behind the scenes.

Our existing language protected the community from towers for 15 years and has never been challenged in court. The language in the Telecommunications Act does not say we cannot limit the height of towers on our barrier island. In fact, the best and only and clearest way to control towers is to regulate the height.

Another disparity and insult to property owners is the Town wishes to confer to the Telecommunications industry the right to something nobody else enjoys. If the Hilton or Colony wanted to build beyond 65 feet they would be told, “So sorry.”

But by removing the height limitation specifically of cell towers from the Comprehensive Plan, the telecommunications industry would be given a right nobody else on Longboat Key enjoys.

I submit the height limitations in the various zones be applied equally. Why should cell towers ever be allowed to loom over single-family homes? Why should the Commission debate applications one-by-one in the face of pushy and charming attorneys when the height of our zoning districts are already set and have kept Longboat Key a community of scale and proportion.

And lastly: Why when we are talking about the need for long-range planning would we not make this part of that process? In other words: why the rush?



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3 Responses for “Cell tower policy shift to ease applications”

  1. William Kary says:

    When’s the last time you had a conversation on you IPAD?

    A few dozen with “poor cell reception?” I dare you to call a public discussion on that matter…

    And you’re running as a Commissioner?

  2. gene jaleski says:

    Last year only 6% of IPad internet connections were made using cellular networks. All the rest, 94%, were made over WiFi networks. Our community needs WiFi far more than the needs of a few dozen residents who have poor cell reception. There are various things they can do for themselves. It is not the job of government to manage people’s personal problems. All counties in Florida have been certified by the FCC as being compliant with all 911 safety requirements. Safety is not a legitimate issue these days.

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