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Flagler County Quietly Scraps Plan for 3 New Emergency Communications Towers, For Now

| May 3, 2016

emergency communications palm coast flagler

A lattice-type communication tower of the sort the county uses. (© FlaglerLive)

Eight months after proposing to piggyback its emergency communications system for free on three new towers to be privately built in three key spots, the Flagler County administration has quietly been forced to drop the entire plan as the company, Jacksonville-based NexTower, pulled out of the deal.

The arrangement collapsed once the county commission declared one of the three locations, on John Anderson Highway in Flagler Beach, unfeasible for a tower. That location drew strong opposition from residents, not least along John Anderson, whose residents tend to be richer and well connected. A second location, at Cody’s Corner off County Road 305, was also initially rejected, but with a caveat that the location could work in a better arrangement with a local property owner. The only tower the commission approved was in Espanola—next to South Bunnell, the poorest and politically least powerful area of the county.

The towers would have risen to heights of between 320 and 350 feet, far exceeding county regulations. NexTower would have built all three towers at its expense. But in exchange, it would have received very favorable terms not usually afforded cell tower companies. Height restrictions would have been waived by the county to enable placing the county’s 800 megahertz emergency communications system in preferential spots atop the towers, but also to enable NexTower to market the structures to up to 20 customers, far more than the four or five that can fit on a 150-foot tower such as the one planned for the heart of Palm Coast, near the public library.

The county would have realized another major benefit: it would have no longer had to pay the $250,000 a year in rent that it pays now on three towers, a considerable saving.

The three new towers were to have been key to the county’s next-generation emergency communications system, as the current system, in place since 2003, is approaching its demise. Palm Coast government, which, like the sheriff’s office, depends on the county’s emergency communications network and infrastructure for its employees, has been pressuring the county to more precisely explain when it intends to move to a new system, and where it intends to place towers in Palm Coast. County and city have been at odds over the timetable of those improvements, with the county stressing that it has the transition under control, and that planning is under way. The setback with NexTower, however, adds another hurdle in the way of a resolution, as it resets to zero the county’s planning for new towers.

The county for now has renewed for five years the rental of space on existing towers, and County Administrator Craig Coffey says the deal with NexTower does not affect the coming transition, nor the functionality of the system as it currently operates. He said the deal fell through onvce the tower on John Anderson was no longer in the mix.

“The economics in totality no longer worked for them, so what we all agreed to is basically go back and revisit it in a few years,” Coffey said. “It just wasn’t there for us. It wasn’t there for them. So it’s got to be a win-win. We think there is an opportunity to go back and revisit that. We’ll start that process again in a year or so when we have a lot more time to do it right, and really it gives us a chance, the system, to not necessarily be constrained by existing sites, because we still had some sites that weren’t being considered at the time. Now, moving forward, we’ll have all the sites being considered at the same time.”

The plan for the three NexTower system was first presented to the county planning board by Kevin Guthrie, the former emergency services manager, who presented it as a critical part of the county’s ability to ensure safe and broad emergency communications. The taller towers were to reduce the number of areas that have weak or no reception, which means that when firefighters or cops are in those areas, they can’t communicate with each other. That endangers them and makes their work more difficult.

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In Coffey’s analysis, the discussion for new towers was happening sooner than the when the system needed to be upgraded. “Now actually, again, it will allow us to stand up new towers and a new system and still have the other system working until we’re ready to flip the switch,” he said. “We weren’t as happy at the time, but in hindsight, it’s actually probably going to work out much better for us, much better for the system. Because we’re approaching everything now as one comprehensive, from-the-ground up, we’ll be able to put towers where they make most sense, get the most coverage and stuff like that. We’ll be able to take our time working through the process. We don’t want people to feel like we’re trying to cram something into locations.” Even though people depend on cell towers daily and hourly, “towers tend to make people unhappy at some level, depending on how you do it. Especially these towers, they’re fairly tall.”

The county is considering owning the new towers, but at $1 million apiece, that’s very unlikely, especially when it can trade height waivers for free rent, or county land it could lease, as was the case with some of the towers discussed last fall. So the more pressing question for now is location, and whether tower sites in Palm Coast will be necessary.

That’s just what Palm Coast wants to know. A long set of responses by County Commission Chairman Barbara Revels to questions from Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts suggested that at least some tower presence in Palm Coast will be necessary: “At least one, if not two of those new towers will need to be within the City of Palm Coast,” the Revels response, drafted by the administration, stated in early March. The towers would have to be 350 feet tall.

The county’s response went on, using some of the same tone Netts used in his letter, with his repeated capitalizing of the word “NOW”: “If the city is sincere in its desire to improve the safety of its first responder,” the county wrote Netts, “there are things the city can do NOW to assist the county in determining the potential for improving radio coverage and building penetration. The city could provide us all locations within the city where it would support a standard tower.” The county proposed a location in the area of Cypress Pointe and Palm Coast Parkway or at the county library off of Belle Terre Parkway. “Would the city support either of those locations?”

So Palm Coast has gotten responses to at least some of its questions, but county and city remain at odds over long-range planning for the tower system—and the abandoned county plan with NexTower is more likely to generate more questions still.

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12 Responses for “Flagler County Quietly Scraps Plan for 3 New Emergency Communications Towers, For Now”

  1. Ken Dodge says:

    The unintended consequences of NIMBY

  2. KB63 says:

    I’m confused. The county pays $250,000. per year now to rent the towers. They could own the towers for $1 million a piece, thus making the money back within 12 years on 3 towers but they could rent to other entities like NexTower was going to do? hmmm, $250,000 per year each to up to 20 entities? Someone please tell me what I am missing on why the County wouldn’t just build & control their own towers.

  3. confidential says:

    What I call dysfunctional probably graft grabbing government officials ..has to do with towers location and residents opposition.
    They had planned one in John Anderson and Rte 100, totally nonsense I can see those nearby residents opposition. At least city planned one inside the sewer treatment plant in PC Parkway, more like less offensive. There is some water facility nearby John Anderson and Rte 100 tucked in the woods why they didn’t offer that location instead away from view?
    I will tell county move the one from John Anderson to the TajMahal, Justice Palace or better to the EMS building off Moody Blvd…after all those are public structures away from eroding residences values and the reception would be great for the EMS, plenty of space there and eyesore matching eyesore.
    But nope as those are the BOCC and VIP palaces.

  4. PJ says:

    There are many commercial properties that those towers can go on keeping them out of residential areas. The County needs to do more research. Simple plan think about it……PJ

  5. Concerned Citizen says:

    Why does the county have to do it quietly? What are they afraid of? They just spent 300 something thousand on Sports equipment and another 500 thousand or more to update voting equipment priorities right? Gotta make sure we can continue to vote back in the same folks that are “quietly” letting our infra structure erode.

    Folks I totally realize that the towers are eye sores to you property holders out there. On the same token do you realize these towers support our County Communications System that our first responders rely on?

    The idea behind the towers placed where they were was to improve reception of the comms system so that our women and men in the field have better reception for radio coverage. And yes in this day and age radios are still needed. I live in Palm Coast and have to step outside half the time to make a cell call and that is with one of the more popular providers. I have friends who live out in the Mondex and have no cell service so how is Law Enforcement and Fire Rescue supposed to communicate?

    I see the county eventually intends to run our communications infrastructure to the ground. We have an outdated system that is failing now. Although the Sheriff won’t admit it and his PIO will tell you there aren’t any problems. And before you say why is this important? Well an updated communications system is not only needed for day to day support but remember past fires when outside agencies came in to help? Well they need to be able to talk to each other.

    Flagler County has gotten way to comfortable with no recent Hurricane threats or fires to deal with like 1998. And while I hope that never happens again it’s really a matter of time and statistics before something major happens.So when you are out there enjoying that well lit soccer field or listening to a band on a portable music stage, or casting a ballot on a new 500,000 dollar system remember this. There are public safety personnel who rely on a working radio to do their job properly and safely. Being safe means folks come home at the end of their shift.

    To the ones saying move the towers to a public space that’s all well and good but studies are done not just by cell companies but also by radio vendors to determine best coverage. While it might not be attractive to have one down the street from you (and I totally sympathize) that tower is letting a Deputy communicate with dispatch on the side of the road somewhere. Therefore that tower is placed where it is most needed. Hopefully you never need the services of our public safety agencies. If you do they are dispatched by (yep radio).

    Folks please remember what the major issues are at election time. It’s time to get new faces in office that won’t sneakily arrange races behind our backs but will make sure the important issues get resolved.. We need leaders all the way from the Commission to the Sheriff and it’s our responsibility and duty as citizens of this county to make those changes happen.

  6. confidential says:

    Whoever is suggesting above, installing the towers in commercial properties you need to take in consideration that “those commercial properties are privately owned” and probably unless handsomely paid by the tower contractor a fee/lease or partial purchase of their commercial land to the owner, then is not going to be approved. The city and county own plenty of public land in different locations…including our parks and the contractor has to adjust his plans to the /given/approved locations of the current city and or county government, so in this case the one that goofed was the county government as they couldn’t care less if you get cell reception in Palm Coast or West Flagler county!
    I know in the 4,900 of Palm Cast Parkway cell reception is awful and the projected city tower location inside the sewer processing plant of Palm Coast Parkway NW will resolve that problem. Also I know my friends in Palm Coast Plantation of Colbert Lane and the Intracoastal also have a serious lack of cell reception and that could be resolved by installing a tower inside any of the Hershel King or the county Parks of Rte 100 and Roberts Road..across the Publix there. Why did Coffey had to give the tower choice location in John Anderson and Rte 100? Only reason; idiocy driven by special interest. I agree with one thing by Concerned above we need to clean house and elect new commissioners with common sense and do away with so much hush hush.

  7. Tired of it says:

    In order for proper coverage and seamless communication the towers need to be strategically located. Just sticking them anywhere will not work.

  8. confidential says:

    Ask Coffey and BOCC why they didn’t give to the tower contractor these 3 locations that would provide needed reception to those surrounding areas? Herschel King Park in 1000 Grady Prather Jr. Cove, Palm Coast, FL 32137, Wadstworth Park in Colbert Lane and Rte 100, Hidden Trails Park in West Flagler County 6108 Mahogany Blvd, Bunnell, FL 32110.

  9. My thoughts says:

    Confidential, the properties that you listed that are parks have deed restrictions that prevent them from being used as cell tower sites. You can look up the deeds on the Clerk of the Circuit Court’s website.

    Some of you posting may not realize that the existing tower on John Anderson has and continues to host the County. During the public hearings, exGen tried to portray that tower as in danger of falling down which turned out to be not true. This whole situation with NexGen was more about THEIR business model as opposed to the County’s emergency response system. Did you know that the County would’ve PAID to lease space on the NexGen towers, even though NexGen built the towers on County property? Perhaps that’s why we don’t see these towers popping up in more sophisticated jurisdictions….

  10. confidential says:

    I appreciate your clarifications, My thoughts. Actually your details make these towers issue more complicated indeed. Whatever the road to the towers will be has to be and expedited one as the lack of good communications is a problem for EMS and residents cells as well.

  11. Dave says:

    Well when there is some emergency and the county loses its service on an existing tower or their old service equipment meets its demise with a whoops, they would have been thankful a new service equipment and tower was reachable. BUT! poor planning, typical Flagler County bickering kills that option.
    I sure hope this county is not impacted by some big emergency and the little engine that could dies on the tracks.

  12. Country Rock Dog says:

    The problem in Flagler County is the public service administrators drank the Communications Monoliths Kool Aid along with most of Florida’s 67 counties public service administrators purchasing extremely expensive, highly sophisticated, software dependent computer controlled complex 800MHz trunked radio systems using digital P25 P1, P2, ProVoice, OpenSky, NXDN, IDAS, DMR, etc with questionable shelf lives along with encryption capabilities which because of simulcast issues require numerous towers strategically located which obviously the well heeled & politically connected ones refuse to accept so a lesser more inefficient & dangerous system is implemented which cuts cost & that dangerous precedent could cost the lives of first responders (Who are always removed from the decision making loop) & the citizens they serve. Those in the communications business know what’s happening here & why but we were never welcome to recommend more cost effective, viable & longer lasting communications systems much less complex then 800 MHz & trunking, anybody here remember the days when everybody, private & public safety utilized VHF high & UHF band equipment which proved to be highly reliable, robust & didn’t present a serious RF radiation hazard to the public?

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