It may not be an understatement when a Palm Coast City Council member calls it “a great day”–not when even Dennis McDonald, the city’s Tamerlane, tells council members he’s smiling beneath his mask as he thanks them “very much for being the good neighbor.” Or when Lou Vitale, who heads Protect Palm Coast, the community opposition group created in the wake of a city proposal to develop areas of the Palm Harbor golf course, declares himself “grateful” for a council decision.
Ending one of the most furious backlashes against a city initiative in recent years, Mayor Milissa Holland today moved to deny the city’s own contractor a proposed lease to build a 150-foot cell tower in the heart of the city-owned Palm Harbor golf course. The vote was unanimous.
Holland could not as meeting chair make the motion. She passed the gavel to Vice-Mayor Eddie Branquinho, which signaled what she was about to do. “This particular proposal was working in conjunction with our consultant, who was retained many years ago in an effort to fill the gap for cell phone coverage and try to blanket our city to ensure public safety was met and also accessibility,” Holland said, referring to the city’s 2017 contract with Diamond Communications. The contract has led to the installment of four new cell towers so far and an improvement in cell reception in previously low to no-bar zones. “I also wanted to acknowledge the fact that I took a tremendous amount of time after listening to your concerns, put a lot of thoughts into what I think would be helpful an appropriate moving forward and I just want to thank you for the residents’ participation in this process. I want to thank you for your patience.”
She then made the motion to reject the tower.
“ I’m just curious why you’re making the motion,” fellow-council member Ed Danko asked. (Even after the Jan. 6 insurrection the president had instigated, Danko still wore his Trump mask.)
“I just thought about it. We often listen to Residents concerns and residents have concerns and I think it should be taken off the table,” the mayor said.
Well, sure. But there’s also the not-insignificant matter of the veiled threat of a lawsuit–and more explicit threats residents made to the council in December–if the city were to go forward with the tower.
Making good on those explicit threats, Brent Spain, a Windemere attorney who specializes in land use, wrote Holland on Jan. 17 to say “our clients” object to the tower and consider its placement at Palm Harbor illegal. Spain wrote that the proposal “violates applicable law.” He cited what he described as “plain and unambiguous” language in the Palm Harbor development agreement that limits use of the parcel where tower would have been raised to “either a golf course or any other public recreational use.” He argued that the height of the tower would exceed height limits that cannot be overriden by a different ordinance (the council a few years ago, in its cell tower master plan, approved exceptions for the placement of cell towers). And he a case from a different Florida circuit that he argued closely parallels the issue in Palm Coast, where the court ordered a cell tower removed from municipal property after it found it had violated a use restriction.
The five-page letter and 42 pages of exhibits, copied to all members of the council, the city attorney, the city manager and the city clerk, never mentions a lawsuit. But the implication was clear.
The lease proposal had also been the clumsiest of the five Diamond Communications has put forward so far, failing to anticipate certain public opposition from the city’s oldest neighborhood and from a community that, rightly or wrongly, considers its golf course more hallowed than municipal grounds. The proposal’s credibility was severely damaged when residents, Vitale and McDonald among them, pointed out that the tower had mysteriously moved from one place to another on mapped out renderings. That prompted Holland to table the proposal when the council considered it in December, setting up today’s vote. Spain’s letter was a show of legal force, just in case, sealing the tower’s fate.
Nevertheless, it gave the public and the council a chance to bathe in pheremones of mutual admiration, the more pungent for being so rare between these casts of characters. It helped, too, that the cell tower’s demise was the third item on the council’s agenda today that had the council yielding to public pressure, or at least desires: the assumption that development or developers would have a blank check–a safe bet on council actions a few years ago–did not apply today.
Perry Mitrano, a resident of the former Matanzas golf course–where the council had earlier in the meeting approved a big, new development, adopting numerous restrictions that benefit existing residents–started the mutual celebration when Branquinho opened the floor to public comment. “What happened here right now, was exactly what us taxpayers want to see every time,” he said. “That you hear us, that you listen, that you make very good decisions. It’s impressive. It feels good. It feels like a better direction everyday. Thank you.”
Several people spoke similarly, including Alana Fitzgerald, who has lived there since 1977 (“I’m a pioneer of your city”), whose late husband’s name graces the marquee of the Flagler Auditorium, and who brought a huge board pasted with pictures she’d taken of her neighborhood to illustrate its pastoral sanctity. “It warms my heart to think that you listened to us,” she said. Another resident who spoke of “many sleepless nights” nearly broke into tears as he spoke his thanks.
Lou Vitale kept his thanks to the strictest minimum then asked: “I would like to know where the cell tower is going to be living, since it’s moved to a new address. May I assume that? Please let us know where that place is. There are some other locations that are quite accessible and appropriate and city-owned property, and if you need those locations I have already snooped around and found great places to put it.”
“If there is a future location to help blanket this coverage area that will come forth on a future agenda,” Holland said. “So what we’re deciding today is to permanently remove this location as an option for the cell phone tower.”
The occasion also gave City Manager Matt Morton–who’d just accepted a $7,000 raise he had declined last year, in the midst of covid-related freezes–a chance to pu in a plug for his staff. “We are, in fact, listening,” he said, “We have made it a habit not an exception to meet with people internally and we did that on all these projects. We will travel to the sites to meet with folks, which I’ve done with several council members. Council has told us to listen to our residents, to meet with residents where they are at. Staff is performing on council’s expectations and directive and I think that is very apparent, and I know Council cherishes the quality of life in this community. That has been the guidance given to me by the mayor and the council to preserve our quality of life in our amenities.”
It was Council member Victor Barbosa who’d called it “a great day,” shortly after the council had voted 5-0 to kill the tower, the audience applauding.