2019 was a viril year for cell-tower construction in Palm Coast. Four poles rose over the city–on Palm Coast Parkway near Heroes Park, on Palm Harbor Parkway and Farmsworth Drive, near the municipal pool and Wadsworth park, and in the woods behind the city’s tennis center, off Belle Terre Parkway, though that one was more of a replacement for an existing, bantam version. They were the first new cell towers in nearly 10 years.
None of those towers drew more than muted public opposition, especially in comparison with the county’s more gargantuan set of towers, some of them rising more than twice as high as Palm Coast’s, that have gone up since, though that network is also the crucial backbone of the county’s and cities’ emergency communications. There’s also been opposition on health grounds, but also on anemic evidence. Rather, the towers were seen as finally helping to end the city’s sprawling graveyards of cellular dead zones.
There were no new towers in 2020. But this morning, the company responsible for planting the poles proposed a new, 150-foot monopole off of 20 Palm Harbor Drive, on the grounds of the city’s golf club.
The proposal did not leave everyone beaming. One council member asked if the pole may be disguised as a tree, as is commonly done elsewhere. It may not. Another asked if a local resident and activist, an engineer, could be given the chance to analyze the proposal. There appeared to be no consensus for that idea. And a few residents spoke objections or reserve about the new tower.
One resident whose home neighbors the tower asked for a “cell tower impact analysis and assessment” on the tower. Another spoke of the aesthetic effects of the tower. “When you enter Palm Coast this is your first impression,” he said, describing the drive in from the Hammock Dunes bridge. “When you come over that bridge, it’s one of the highest point in our city, you’re going to be looking at a 150-foot tower.” (From the ground, the tower will possibly be visible from homes on Casper Drive, Cole Place and Cole Court. The closest house to the tower would be 300 feet away, according to a city official.)
He questioned whether that was the sight the city would want to present, and whether the towers were generating revenue for the city. Revenue in the Information Technology Enterprise Fund, which accounts for cell-tower revenue and the city’s fiber optic network, is projected to drop significantly according to the adopted 2020 budget, to 562,506, from $739,200. Most of that is fiber optic revenue.
The city is not responsible for the cost of tower construction. But nor does it get the majority of revenue from the towers. The city contracted with New Jersey-based Diamond Communications in 2017 to provide a wireless communications master plan and implement it. The city also relaxed regulations that had hampered the construction of high cell towers. Diamond’s master plan, developed in cooperation with the city, drew up 10 coverage areas that needed improved cell reception. The plan identified 29 potential properties within those areas where towers could rise.
“The point of the wireless master plan was a way to affect quickly getting cell towers up in these areas,” Doug Akins, the city’s IT director, said. “Typically to put a cell tower up, they’d have to go through a special exception process, the city would then have to go before the planning board, public hearings would have to happen, and in effect with the wireless master plan, city council pre-approved these 29 areas for a cell tower to be put up. So what the developer needs to do now is to submit a permit application and of course get a ground lease for the property.” That still has to go before the council every time, and what was before the council this morning, and expected to be on the council’s agenda for approval later this month.
Diamond assumes the $300,000 to $400,000 cost of building each tower. It pays the city a one-time $25,000 site-development fee. The city then receives 40 percent of lease revenue generated from each carrier on each tower. Diamond gets 60 percent. The city also has four towers of its own (the water tower in the Hammock is one such). Diamond doesn’t take revenue from carriers that were on those towers before 2018, but it gets 35 percent of revenue from carriers it would have recruited and placed there since.
According to figures provided by the city, revenue from cell-tower leasing was $306,000 in 2018–T-Mobile, Verizon, Metro-PCS and Sprint were the phone-service providers–before Diamond began paying the city a share of its own towers’ revenue. Revenue rose to $400,000 in 2019, including $62,500 in Diamond in site-development fees and just $21,500 in revenue sharing from Diamond’s leases to providers. Revenue in 2020 was $334,000, including just over $40,000 in revenue sharing from Diamond. (See the details by year and by customer here or below.)
Council member Ed Danko proposed tabling the proposal until Lou Vitale, the engineer and a member of the Protect Palm Coast organization, could provide the impact analysis. The council did not take him up on it. Vitale wrote the council an email outlining his concerns, and including an illustration of how he perceives the tower to affect neighbors.