Still stinging over criticism over how the county handled plans for a new emergency communications tower in southern Manatee, the county commission on Thursday turned down plans for a new cell phone tower in Lakewood Ranch.
The Lakewood Ranch tower is needed to handle the increased demand brought by growth in area, so commissioners decided they would take responsibility for the tower and build it across the street from the development on a piece of county owned land.
The commission’s opposition clearly pointed back to a recent situation when county administrators approved a tower for the Kinnan Park neighborhood without ever giving residents a chance to comment beforehand.
The commission took the heat but decided staff should be punished for what happened and in a 4-3 vote last month, decided to reprimand County Attorney Mitchell Palmer and Administrator Ed Hunzeker. Fireworks flew at the tail end of Thursday’s land use meeting when the reprimand came forward with commissioners once again arguing whether it was necessary or harsh enough to express the commission’s frustration.
Commissioners did agree to bring the letter of reprimand back at Tuesday’s regular meeting.
Commissioners received an earful from Kinnan Park area residents for weeks and have since directed staff to develop a new ordinance that would require all future tower projects to come before the board in a public hearing. That ordinance has not been completed and presented yet, so the county is operating on its current code requirements.
The majority of Manatee County commissioners turned against a proposed new development in Lakewood Ranch on Thursday because the site plan contained the proposal to include a cell phone tower, if needed. The development will take about 10 years to build out so the developer was unsure a tower would be needed but wanted it included just in case.
Lakewood Ranch and eastern Manatee County are rapidly growing and the pace is leaving cell phone users behind due to the lack of towers in the area. The development proposal before the commission on Thursday is technically two separate but abutting projects that will eventually include a total of 3,250 new homes.
The acreage sits south of State Road 64 East, north of State Road 70 and west of Lorraine Road and will eventually be serviced by the 44th Avenue East expansion and the future four-lane Rangeland Parkway.
The commission unanimously approved the northern section of the overall project but battled over the second, which would include the proposed tower.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh acknowledged the most recent tower controversy was driving her opposition because, “We got burned.”
But there is a difference.
Developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch’s site plan was first submitted to the county in January, well before the most recent controversy. It included the proposed tower’s location, and meets all of the county’s code requirements. The tower would be buffered by a recreational facility to the north of it, two lakes to the east and west and a roadway to the south that would separate the project from county-owned property.
SMR’s Richard Bedford indicated it was unfair to compare what they were proposing to what county staff approved along Prospect Road near the Crescent Lakes subdivision earlier this year.
“This isn’t a last minute addition,” Bedford said.
Land Development Director Russell Smith, for homebuilder Lennar Homes, took it one step further.
“We are kind of darned if we do and darned if we don’t,” Russell said. “If we wait until the tower is needed, then you are likely to have people move in and say this wasn’t disclosed. So we took the opposite position and said let’s disclose this so everybody that moves in is aware of it to be fully transparent.”
The developer already had plans to disclose — to any future property buyers — the tower’s location, which would potentially affect a couple lots out of the proposed 3,250, with the closest home’s lot line being 300 feet away.
It was clear Baugh and Commissioner Charles Smith had lingering resentment from the recent tower battle.
Bedford and his team became the unintended target of a two-hour debate among commissioners who said they had no issue with developing 1,500 acres of land and adding 3,250 more houses, but clearly had an issue with the tower. Baugh and Smith argued that the development plan and the cell tower proposal needed to be two different matters for the public to consider.
Commissioners tried several compromise stipulations but ultimately agreed to potentially take on the responsibility for a tower that would be built on the land to the south for which the county has its own plans.
Commissioner Stephen Jonnson made the suggestion, which was quickly supported by the developer.
“If you want to say you’ll put the tower there, this conversation is over,” Bedford said. “But we’ve been taking a beating over service so, again, don’t blame us for bad service. For God and country, we tried.”
There was no public opposition to the proposal.
Jonsson moved to approve the project absent the cell tower and the motion passed 5-2 with commissioners Carol Whitmore and Betsy Benac dissenting.
Benac said SMR did everything the right way and followed the county code as written.
“This has all been taken personally because of what happened the other day,” Whitmore said. “If this was a month ago, this would have been approved an hour ago.”