The Palm Coast City Council today in a pair of unanimous if somewhat guarded votes approved two lease agreements with Diamond Communications to build 150-foot cell towers at the eastern edge of Royal Palms Parkway and in the heart of Club House Drive in Palm Coast.
The Parkway location was not controversial. It’s far from existing homes. The Club House Drive location, on a city-owned parcel used for a utility pump station, was more controversial, because it is in a dense residential zone. But cell reception is poor there. AT&T has been on the hunt for a tower in the area for years. Diamon attempted to build one in the city-owned Palm Harbor Golf Club. Opposition was swift and angry. The council rejected that plan in early 2021. The Club House Drive location was the next best thing. (See: “Another Cell Tower Plan Near Palm Harbor Golf Has Palm Coast Council Fearful of Public Reaction.”)
The council’s two 4-0 votes Tuesday aren’t the end of the story. Diamond’s proposal must now go before the Palm Coast Planning Board to secure a special zoning exception for the tower, and the council still has an exit clause (as does Diamond). So opposition is likely not over. Nor is the 4-0 vote as unanimous as it looks. One council member–Eddie Branquinho–said he was voting for the lease today only to give the process a chance to work itself out, and the public a further chance to address Diamond’s plans at a subsequent neighborhood meeting and before the Planning Board.
The company is now considering lowering the monopole’s height or changing its design to lessen the impact on neighboring homes. “We’re going to present a series of alternatives, views of different structures, a bell tower, a tree, a flagpole type design,” Tom Waniewski of Diamond Communications told the council. Those plans will be presented to neighbors of the tower site at a neighborhood meeting in July. “We’re actually hoping to get neighborhood input and if they decide that the tree is what they consider best, that’s what we’re going to use to apply for.” Waniewski said tree designs are better than flagpole designs. Flagpoles lessen transmission’s efficiency.
Before the vote, Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin cited the 94,000 residents in the city, and their dependence on seamless communications in emergencies, setting down an obvious marker against the opposition: predicating a project on “public safety” has become the equivalent of predicating one “for the children,” a rhetorical strategy designed to neutralize the opposition, or at least put it in a defensively dubious position.
“Our aging population is increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable health and safety emergencies,” Alfin said. “Residents should be confident that cell phone service will be available everywhere at any time in Palm Coast whenever their health or safety is at risk. So I speak for myself on the city council that public safety for every one of our residents and for every one of our law enforcement officers and every one of our first responders will rise to the top of any decision-making I make on the dais. I am in favor of moving these ordinances, these resolutions forward today.”
Law enforcement and first responders have their own telecommunication tower network, paid for and run exclusively by county taxpayers and administered by the county. That network is not dependent on private-company towers such as Diamond’s. However, first responders, deputies and firefighters primarily, do not rely only on the emergency network, which they use when they communicate by radio. Their computer-assisted dispatching–in every patrol car, in every fire truck and on other electronic devices–relies on regular cell towers for reception as well. CAD is an integral part of responders’ work in real time. (A previous version of this article inaccurately neglected to include that aspect of responders’ communications.)
Whether Diamond places a cell tower up or not makes no difference to the emergency communications system–but it does not exclusively affect private residents’ service, when CAD communications are taken into account.
Ahead of today’s meeting, opponents of the cell tower in Palm Harbor’s golf club re-circulated documentation from that time, prepared by the late Lou Vitale, who’d led the opposition. Imposing as he was in person, especially when he threatened lawsuits against the city, his ghost was less persuasive today.
One of the locations the current opposition pointed to is a parcel on the west side of Linear Park, another is on Linear Park itself, to the east. They were strange proposals, considering that one of their proponents, Dennis McDonald, has previously spoken of Linear Park as one of the great treasures of the city. (He addressed the council today, too, repeating the word “monstrosity.”)
Much of Linear Park is in greenway zoning. “We cannot construct a cell tower on those parcels,” Doug Akins, the city’s IT director, said. In one case, the vitale proposal fell in the greenway zoning. In another, it fell in a flood plain, which again prevents the city from building anything considered a “critical facility” there. Cell towers are considered critical structures. There were no areas on Holland Park where a tower could rise with appropriate setbacks. The Community center and fire station on Palm Coast Parkway were not options, either. That left the utility parcel off Club House Drive, Akins said.
Council member Eddie Branquionho said he went to the parcel and imagined a tower there. “It doesn’t look good,” he said, calling it worse than the defunct location on the golf course. “Why not private property somewhere that wouldn’t create this problem?” He said he favors “every possible tower on city property, because that’s income for us,” but not this one.
Tom Waniewski of Diamond Communications said the company looked at several private property parcels. But the further south the locations–as those locations were–the further away the tower would get from its intended coverage area, defeating its purpose. That said, “There’s not significant ground space” along Palm Coast Parkway “to be able to place the tower there at all. The only areas that commercial areas that do have significant ground space, again are further south,” Waniewski said.
There was public opposition at today’s meeting, but compared to the battle over the golf course tower, it was very limited. Celia Pugliese cited unproven claims that proximity to cell towers causes health problems such as cancer, memory loss and exhaustion.
“The American Cancer Society (ACS) does not have any official position or statement on whether or not radiofrequency (RF) radiation from cell phones, cell phone towers, or other sources is a cause of cancer,” the society states on its website. It looks to other organizations such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), or the US National Toxicology Program (NTP). “So far, neither IARC nor the NTP have classified the cancer-causing potential of RF waves from cell phone towers specifically,” the society states. IARC has found a possible link between RF radiation and tumors, but among cell users, because of the frequency and proximity of their cell phones to their head.
Alan Lowe, a candidate for a council seat, recalled the debate over the Palm Harbor proposal, questioned why at the time Diamond said it could not look like a tree, but now it can. (Waniewski said this time Diamond is willing to do it to win public approval even though it adds “substantially” to the cost.) Lowe also raised the potential for the towers to be made obsolete by 5G technology (the quick answer, for now, is no, according to experts: towers are a needed backbone to the smaller, more frequent 5G locations.)
A few other people spoke in opposition, and one didn’t–Greg Blose, the head of the local chamber–who got Branquinho to confess that for once, he agreed with Blose: cell reception needs to be improved in the city. But he qualified his support with a caveat to Diamond’s Waniewski: “I’ll be voting in favor of this today with the possibility of denying it after you speak with the people, and I want to hear what the people have to say after that. By me denying it today. I’m not going to have a chance of you talking to the people.”
Council member John Fanelli echoed Branquinho’s approach, buoying the opposition ahead, though the council still would have a majority of three in favor of the towers: Alfin and Council embers Ed Danko and Nick Klufas have spoken of cell coverage as essential. Danko also made the motion to approve the Club House lease. Klufas was absent from today’s meeting.