Manatee County commissioners found themselves between a rock and a radio tower as they faced an intense grilling from residents of the Kinnan Park area.
The installation of the 185-foot tower was halted four months ago when residents told commissioners that the pile of equipment caught them completely off guard and they didn’t know about the project until construction began right in their backyards.
Commissioners deliberated with Motorola engineers, county staff and concerned residents for nearly five hours before voting to continue building the tower at Kinnan Park by a 5-2 vote. Commissioners Vanessa Baugh and Robin DiSabatino voted against removing the stop work order.
According to County Attorney Mitchell Palmer, the approval of the public safety tower didn’t require a public hearing. The tower, just like many others in Manatee County, was administratively approved, county staff said.
It was a tough decision, commissioners said, but their options were costly. Motorola engineers estimated a $3 million cost to move the tower to a different portion of land on the same planned parcel at 7510 Prospect Road.
The board also had the option to switch the plan to a two-tower design, with a 130-foot tower near Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and a 250-foot tower near the Home Depot just west of I-75, along University Parkway. That option would cost an estimated $6.2 million.
Moving forward after the pause in construction will cost a pretty penny, too. According to Motorola engineers, the county’s vote to resume construction at Kinnan Park will still cost them $33,215. The project should be completed by October next year.
The sooner the better, said public safety officials at the meeting Tuesday afternoon. Manatee Sheriff Rick Wells said his department has observed a noticeable issue with dead zones in the south county area.
“The problem we have in south county and University Parkway is that our deputies have a hard time picking up transmission in a business or residence,” Wells noted. “Outside is fine, but inside hit or miss.”
While Kinnan Park residents are furious that a radio tower will be built in their backyard, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said no other single-tower option would work because the area is one of the most developed in the county.
“We searched every parcel, every square-inch, for alternate sites such that we wouldn’t wind up with another neighborhood in this audience,” Hunzeker said. “There’s over 100 slides that we could’ve bored you to tears with.”
Despite Hunzeker’s claim, Baugh said she didn’t believe there was nowhere else the tower could go. The issue appeared to be that the Kinnan Park tower will also serve as a receiver from towers in Sarasota, which restricts it from being moved too far north of the county line.
Commissioner Robin DiSabatino expressed her displeasure with the process and went as far as starting a motion to fire Hunzeker, County Attorney Mitchell Palmer and John Barnott, director of building and planning services. Her demand elicited applause from residents, but other commissioners didn’t back her.
Gary Adams, a resident who owns a large piece of land that borders the tower’s parcel, said commissioners wouldn’t have had so many angry residents on their hands if the process was done properly in the first place. He previously fought against the tower during a Sept. 17 gathering outside of nearby Kinnan Elementary School.
“We are all here spending all this time, and it was totally avoidable,” Adams said, calling out Hunzeker for not holding public meetings. “This is massive infrastructure that needs to be done right.”
A county spokesperson said the issue of whether to treat the tower as a public use facility, which would be administratively approved, or a cell phone tower, which would require public hearing, was debated internally. The County Attorney’s Office suggested that the county go the route of public use.
Residents in the area were notified of the construction in writing but felt blindsided because the letters arrived shortly before construction workers did. Another source of anger was the possibility of negative health effects stemming from the radio tower’s emissions.
Motorola engineers said the tower is an accepted standard that meets the Federal Communications Commission’s guidelines, but during public comment, residents said they didn’t subscribe to guidelines set by the government.
“Just wait and see what you’re going to have when these Kinnan kids start having problems and start getting sick and start having sleep problems,” said Marley Boss, an organizer of the Move the Tower protest group, referencing health complications supposedly linked to another Manatee school.
In the end, commissioners pointed fingers at Hunzeker and his staff, who they say undermined them by steadily urging the process along.
“I get the distinct impression that the administration thinks they can do whatever they want without any consequence,” Baugh said. She added that she had “no faith” left in Hunzeker’s administration.
The board hopes to change that by voting to “reprimand” Hunzeker and Palmer. Chairwoman Priscilla Whisenant Trace said she would inquire with other county officials during her upcoming trip to the Florida Association of Counties.
While the tower didn’t require public hearing, the board called for one during a workshop in February 2016. Their request went ignored by county staff, Baugh said.
Commissioner Charles Smith said he and his fellow commissioners shouldered some of that blame for not properly checking the power Hunzeker wields to make decisions like this one.
“The check and balance starts with us — the Board of County Commissioners,” Smith said, noting that the board should ensure the next administrator doesn’t have enough power. “This is going to happen over and over again until we find out what our responsibilities are.”