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Cell tower proposal to be revised

MANATEE — A proposal to further restrict new telecommunications towers in residential areas will undergo more changes before Manatee County commissioners vote on it.

Taking their first detailed look at the proposal Thursday, commissioners said they wanted several changes to be made before a second public hearing next month.

“When it comes back to us, I want it done right,” Commissioner Carol Whitmore said.

The proposal would amend the county’s land-development code to make it easier to place towers in some “preferred” areas and tougher in “non-preferred” areas, namely those with residential zoning.

County regulations already list industrial, agricultural, commercial and office areas as preferred locations. The changes would allow more proposed sites within those areas to be administratively approved without a public hearing.

But any new towers proposed for residential areas, some of which now can be administratively approved, would be required to go through at least one public hearing to get special approval. Companies proposing such towers also would have to submit more-detailed information on other potential sites they considered and why those sites weren’t chosen.

Commissioners asked for the proposed changes in September, as controversy over a planned cell tower in River Club heated up.

Several praised the proposal Thursday — “It’s a step in the right direction,” Commissioner Joe McClash said — but said it needed adjustments.

McClash said including agriculture-zoned land as a preferred area could result in towers being placed in residential areas that surround agricultural pockets, such as in northwest Bradenton and around Palmetto. Also, parcels zoned conservation shouldn’t be considered a preferred area because many were bought with state money, which doesn’t allow commercial uses, he said.

Jason Kofender, an attorney for cell tower company Crown Castle, said government-owned sites shouldn’t be the first preference because it “suggests its purpose is to create revenue for government.” But county officials said such sites are best because they often already have antennas.

The proposed changes won’t apply to amateur or ham radio sites, county officials said. That didn’t soothe Geoff Haines, president of the amateur radio organization West Coast Florida Group. Inc., who asked that such sites be specifically exempted from the revised rules.

But a county attorney advised against it, saying those sites easily could become cell sites by adding an antenna.

Thursday’s public hearing was the first of two required on the proposed changes. The second one is scheduled for Feb. 23, after which commissioners can vote on it.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.