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.
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.