Last December, the Flagler County Commission approved building five new cell towers in the county, two of them reaching up to 350 feet. Last week, the commission approved raising a third tower from its previously approved height of 199 feet to 320 feet–and to build that tower with Volusia County. The tower is to be located on 20 acres at 1250 South Old Dixie Highway. (The three tallest towers will rise higher than the Statue of Liberty.)
The tower is part of the county’s planned new bakbone for its emergency communications system, which is being modernized through a Motorola contract at a cost of $15 million and will include a total of six towers. The system serves all county and city radio communications, including fire, police, transportation, utilities, code enforcement and other administrative uses. Palm Coast, Flagler Beach, Bunnell and the Sheriff’s Office all use the system. It is the county’s responsibility to finance it and maintain it. It last upgraded the system at the beginning of the last decade.
The number, height and ownership of cell towers had been a sticking point. In 2015, the county proposed three 350-foot towers that would be build by Jacksonville-based NexTower Development Group. But the plan was derailed over concerns about height and locations: a tower planned for John Anderson Highway mobilized Flagler Beach against it. And though NexTower would assume the cost of the projects, leasing space on the towers proved less attractive than owning the towers outright. The plan was scrapped.
The new plan has the county contracting to build the five towers, which it will own, leasing space to providers and presumably making money from the deals instead of paying $170,000 a year to lease space, as it does not. The other 350-foot towers will go up at Cody’s Corner at State Road 11 and at State Road 100 and County Road 305, both on county-owned property. A 250-foot tower will go up at Matanzas Woods Parkway near I-95, near a higher tower already there. An existing 250-foot tower at the county jail will be replaced. And a new, 160-foot tower near the Government Services Complex will go up.
The tower approved last week had begun as a 199-foot tower at 1600 South Old Dixie, where it drew some opposition. The change in location neutralized some of that opposition, as did a joint approach with Volusia County. Volusia needed the tower to be taller to serve its needs, and for it to be moved a certain distance. Hasd the two counties not worked out a joint agreement, Volusia would have had to erect its own tall tower not far from Flagler’s.
“Thus we have both decided to work together at this site to lessen the number of towers needed, as well as allow for cost efficient interoperability between our counties,” Jarrod Shupe, the county’s innovation technology director, wrote in a two-page explanation of the county’s plan. “The submittal provides for the county to install antennas higher than existing towers–thereby providing significantly better signal in area[s] currently experiencing poor coverage.”
The Old Dixie Highway tower is designed to accommodate up to six wireless service providers or users. The lowest 50 feet of the tower would be painted forest green. The remaining portion would be painted blue or gray, and lighting on the tower will be shielded so as to reduce its downcast effect to the greatest extent possible.
“We are asking them to pick up the cost for the additional expense above the 199 feet to get it to the 320,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said. The original cost to the county would have been roughly $800,000. The additional height would add half a million dollars: that would be Volusia’s share. “We both will have tenants at the top, we both may have tenants lower.”
The planning board’s hearing drew just one public comment. David Haas, a former Flagler county administrator who’s long since been with ICI Homes, the developer of Plantation Bay among many other properties, said there’d been initial concerns with the tower but those were addressed. The tower is expected to improve cell reception in Plantation Bay, assuming a cell provider or two take up residents on its tripod. The tower will not be latticed. Ranked at a Risk Category III, it is designed to collapse “by folding along the face opposite the failed leg of the tripod,” according to a staff report. “Structurally, this is the minimally intrusive, yet strongest tower design option.” The tower, built to withstand up to 160-mile per hour winds, will not be guyed, meaning that no guy lines will be stretched to ensure its stability. It will be lit in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration rules.
Jane Gentile-Youd, a Plantation Bay resident–and current county commission candidate–who’d previously opposed the lower tower, had no opposition to the new version.
“It’s been an ordeal with this tower,” Gentile-Youd wrote Planning Director Adam Mengel on Oct. 9, “first the change in location–the light issue and now a new height, taller than ever.” But for all her previous opposition, Gentile-Youd said she would not oppose the proposal as long as neighboring property owners did not, and as long as the tower is painted in such a way as to blend with surrounding trees.
The county’s planning board took up the tower matter the same evening and unanimously approved the plan, as did the county commission last week: the county was seeking a special exception, permitting it to exceed existing height limits for cell towers.