The pole would slash home values by 20%, some say.
A proposed 125-foot AT&T cell tower drew opposition from dozens of neighbors — and unanimous disapproval from Planning Commission members — on July 26, at the meeting at City Center. But no vote was taken, and it remains unclear how staff should evaluate the unusual proposal when it goes before the Port Orange City Council.
A 98-page memo approved by the residents was submitted before the meeting. It has the footnotes and the diction of a legal brief and was presented to the Planning Commission by Smokerise Boulevard resident Eugene Healy, laying out evidence designed to prove that because the pole was a visual "monstrosity" and was unnecessary to provide cell service, it did not meet the requirements of the Land Development Code.
Moreover, according to some real estate professionals, the pole could reduce by 20% the values of the 114 homes near the site, which is owned by the Port Orange United Church of Christ, 651 Taylor Road. No one spoke on behalf of the church at the meeting.
The memo points out that if the proposed pole were to be built and then fall, it could land on homes or even in the middle of Taylor Road.
But as deputy city attorney Matthew Jones pointed out before the presentations on the issue, the tower is a permitted use in the zoning category of the land. Therefore, as far as the zoning was concerned, "no formal action is required of this board," he said.
Groans were audible among the capacity crowd of more than 110, many of whom wore "no tower" stickers on their shirts.
Change of use
Penelope Cruz, interim planning manager for the city, laid out the facts. With the church's consent, AT&T has requested to build the pole on the church's property, which would constitute a "change of use" within the Government/Public Use zoning category. The current use is for a worship building only. That kind of change is not common: It's only happened twice in the past 10 years in Port Orange, and both involved churches adding child care centers.
Emphasizing the rarity of the issue, the staff report states: "There are not clear, specific criteria in the LDC for evaluating a proposed Change of Use within the GPU zoning district."
AT&T's proposal also changes part of the property to for-profit, while the previous use is nonprofit, as Planning Commission member John Junco pointed out.
Planning Commission member Lance Green said at the end of the meeting that, as a general rule, he didn't agree with the concept of changing uses within a zoned property.
And the Healy presentation seized on ways the proposal might be ruled noncompliant.
No gaps in service
First, under the LDC, the applicant must prove that the tower is needed to fix a gap service; and second, that the need cannot be met by adding antennas to existing towers.
AT&T stated in a letter that the tower is needed to provide coverage and capacity. But when they heard about that claim, Eugene Healy and his wife, Tanis, weren't convinced. In June, they joined with four other residents of the neighborhood — Paul Kern, Bruce Watts, John Watts and N. David Mead — to conduct an experiment and provide evidence to the contrary.
"I believe it would be a horrible travesty to allow AT&T to steamroll the city and pressure them to allow this non-conforming use."
For about a month, they logged 561 calls, texts or emails near the proposed pole site and testified that, 100% of the time, they had perfect service. Therefore, there was no gap. The memo also points out that AT&T's own website proclaims that it has 100% coverage in the neighborhood.
Therefore, the memo says, the tower would be built solely for AT&T to be the first in the area and therefore be able to charge rent to future companies that want to add service to that pole.
"I believe it would be a horrible travesty to allow AT&T to steamroll the city and pressure them to allow this non-conforming use," Kern wrote.
Another Smokerise Boulevard resident, Alfredo Orza, added via email: "Such a monstrosity belongs in isolated fields, not in the midst of an upscale subdivision. We cannot allow a nontaxable to profit at the expense of others."
"I beg you not to allow this gross erection," Smokerise Boulevard resident Dr. Christopher Linge wrote in an email.
In their letter, Mori Court residents John and Gwendolyn Watts called the pole an "eye sore" that would make their south entrance view "reprehensible." They wrote, "Sitting on our front porch, I will steam instead of looking at the flowers and growing grass."
'Horrible' and 'ugly'
Although no vote was taken, the Planning Commission members agreed that the location was "not proper" (Tom Jordan) and "horrible" (Mike Arminio), and that the pole was "ugly" (Newton White).
"It breaks my heart that we're not voting on this," said Planning Commission member Maria Mills-Benat. "You can all see who would walk out of this room a winner."
Junco said that in his tenure on the Planning Commission, he had never seen a presentation quite like the residents' memo. He also added that he was disappointed that the church did not have a representative at the meeting to defend itself. (Kern said after the meeting that he had attempted multiple times to get someone at the church to talk about the pole, but he got no response.)
"As my mom always said, there is more than one way to skin a cat," White said to conclude the agenda item. "I would hope that we could find a better way ... to provide cell coverage to our city."