The Palm Coast City Council next Tuesday is set to approve leases for two new cell towers–one off Royal Palms Parkway in Town center, one off Club House Drive, near the Palm Harbor Golf Course.
They would be the first new towers approved since 2019. The Royal Palms Tower is uncontested. The Club House Drive tower is controversial, as was a similar proposal for a tower within the golf club in late 2020. Public opposition defeated that proposal. So while the council favors both towers, it is fearful of the public reaction ahead regarding the Club House Drive proposal–even though its members say the tower is a public safety necessity.
“I need a stronger sense of confidence that there is no other option,” Mayor David Alfin said. “For example, we just received a gift of land over at the golf course. Is there some part of that land that could be considered? I don’t know what the deed restrictions are. I need you to tell me have you are we are we sure that we’ve exhausted every search possible?” The city’s IT director said those possibilities were exhausted.
Council member John Fanbelli also wanted all other options exhausted, including the possibility of querying a private property owner for land, though that would mean no revenue for the city from that tower.
Palm Coast is again in a mini-drought of new cell towers. The last new one went up in December 2019. When a proposal to place a tower inside the Palm Harbor golf course was unveiled in December 2020, opposition was immediately palpable, as it had not been with previous pole-raisings.
Opposition turned to forceful protest. Then the council scrapped the proposal, under threat of lawsuit. It was to be the fourth tower in two years. But there’s been no new towers since.
The city’s cell-tower contractor, Diamond Communications, is now proposing to build the two new towers. Diamond is proposing to build a 150-foot monopole tower at 1255 Town Center Boulevard, essentially just southwest of the corner of Royal Palms Parkway and Town Center Boulevard, and a 150-foot tower off the area of 6 Clubhouse Drive, near Carlson Lane, co-located with a city utility pump station.
Council members were already skeptical about that one as they discussed both towers at a workshop Tuesday because residents’ opposition emails are already streaming to the council members’ in-boxes.
“We did look at properties throughout the whole area the city owns, trying to find a location for this tower,” IT Director Doug Akins told the council. “It’s a very well developed area. It’s very hard to find places that aren’t in public view, but this was the best one we can come up with.”
The city council in 2017 contracted with Diamond Towers to improve the city’s cell-tower coverage. Diamond was to find ways to build new towers at no cost to the city, and add carriers either on the new towers or on the five towers the city owns, including the water tower in the Hammock. In exchange, the city would provide generous lease terms for land where towers would rise. Diamond followed through. (See: “Palm Coast Would Turn Over Its Cell Towers To Contractor Even as New Law Revamps Landscape.”)
The city preserved 100 percent of revenue from carriers that pre-dated Diamond’s on city-owned towers. Diamond takes 25 percent of revenue generated by carriers it added to city-owned towers. At Diamond-constructed towers, Diamond gets 60 percent of the revenue, the city gets 40 percent.
It was Diamond’s responsibility to draft a master plan that would analyze how best to improve coverage. The company did that over the past five years, at no cost. Its fee is drawn from a percentage of the revenue it generates from carrier contracts on towers, whether those owned by the city or those Diamond brought on. Diamond identified 10 areas in the city that needed improved coverage. When the council approved the master plan in 2018, it also pre-approved locations of towers in those zones. So “a tower could be constructed on these sites without going through the special exception process or the Planning and Land Development Regulation Board,” Akins said.
The council still had final approval every time Diamond sought a lease, so it wasn’t necessarily a given that wherever Diamond wanted to position a tower, that’s where it would go. Notably, Diamond, and especially the city council, ran into that wall of opposition when the tower was proposed for the grounds of the Palm Harbor Golf Club.
Diamond’s five-year contract with Palm Coast expired last month, which means it’s no longer obligated to market master plan sites to carrier or provide consulting services to the city. But the two new locations were developed before the expiration of the contract.
The tower in Town Center would accommodate four carriers. For now, T-Mobil is interested in that location. Diamond would pay the city the usual $25,000 site development fee when the tower is built. The city would get 40 percent of carrier revenue.
AT&T is interested in the tower on Clubhouse Drive, as it was in the tower at Palm Harbor golf. Both city staff and Diamond agreed on the new location. But the site is not in the existing master plan. “It’s an area that needs coverage, but the specific site was not identified in the master plan,” Akins said.
That changes a lot in how it must seek regulatory approval. It would have to go through the usual regulatory process, including appearance before the planning board.
So why was it before the council on Tuesday? Because the city has to approve Diamon’s lease first, as it would not have, had the site been in the master plan. The ground lease is voided without a special exception–an exception it must still secure from the city’s planning board. Public opposition could be another variable–and public opposition may be only fueled by the fact that the site is not in the master plan. Diamond will be holding a neighborhood meeting to explain the proposal to the public.
“This site is because the other one was turned down by City Council,” Tom Waniewski of Diamond Communications said. “We had wanted to go on the golf course, that provided the coverage that we were seeking. That was turned down.” So this is an alternative.
Even without hearing from the public, council members were raising questions about the Club House Drive location. Mayor David Alfin wondered whether there were commercial parcels where the tower could go up. He cited “a significant piece of land” at 1 Florida Park Drive. But Waniewski said it would have been wrong for the company to pursue arrangements with private property owners when it was under contract with the city to seek leases through the city. Plus, the city would not generate any revenue from towers built on private property. Last year the city’s share of cell-tower income was $128,000. Nor would Diamond provide the $25,0000-pwr-tower fee to the city as it builds them.
“I’m also trying to weigh it against concerns that residents have with their their quality of life,” Alfin said. But he also raised a public-safety issue. “I don’t think we have the luxury of just not putting a tower. I’m trying to find alternatives, but the sheriff has has made it clear that there are areas–and this area is one of them–where his people are not safe, as Councilman Branquinho mentioned, because their service will drop out. That’s just unacceptable. So we will have to find a way forward from a public safety standpoint.”
“We need cellphone coverage. All of us know that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a call drop,” Council member Ed danko said, echoing the public-safety concerns as well. “I realize people don’t like cell phone towers in their neighborhood but they certainly like cell phone service.”
Waniewski urged the council to approve the the lease, giving the company the chance to make its case to the public rather than pre-emptively kill the proposal. The company plans for that neighborhood meeting possibly in July, followed by an appearance before the planning board.
The lease approval would not seal the deal. “The lease only gives them the option to get these permits,” City Attorney Neysa Borkert told the council. “We in no way can agree to any type of rezoning action or special exception through a lease agreement. So this doesn’t bind you to approve any future zoning matters that may come before you with respect to this property. It’s just saying: we are giving you the authorization to go in and try to get these permits if you can. We’re going to sign off on it because we’re the property owner, we have to, that’s a requirement of the permit. Then they have to take it from there.”
The city is authorizing the first step in the option, but not approving the building of the tower. Not yet. The ground lease the council approves would be contingent on approval of a special exception by the planning board. The special exception would not come back before the council. Either it passes the planning board, or it doesn’t. Without a special exception, the project can’t go forward and the lease is nullified.
“With all due respect, when was the last time the planning board rejected anything?” Council member Eddie Branquinho, who is not keen on the tower, said. “With all due respect.” (The planning board has been on a streak of recommending approval of new apartment complexes, against which Branquinho is waging a war, wherever the complexes are located. His comment should be understood in that context, and could, from the planning board’s perspective–with all due respect, of course–be reversed: when was the last time Branquinhpo approved of an apartment complex?)
Waniewski offered to insert a line in the option part of the Club House Drive lease that would give either side–Diamond or the city–an option to terminate the agreement within 18 months. That made Alfin and Fanelli more comfortable, and the council agreed to move forward to next Tuesday’s vote–approving both leases–with that escape clause built in.