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Shores cell tower woes not yet over

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of July 31, 2014)

Indian River Shores residents will have to endure spotty cellular phone service a while longer thanks to decades-old restrictions on the county beach property behind the CVS pharmacy on A1A.

Shores Town Manager Robbie Stabe broke the news to the council last week that, according to county officials, the U.S. Department of the Interior has denied a request to put the much-needed cell tower on land deeded to Indian River County long ago by the federal government.

After it was revealed that emergency services calls and data transmissions were being lost and dropped, the Town planned to install a tower behind the Shores fire station. Dubbed an eyesore and alleged health hazard by some Bermuda Bay residents, the tower issue polarized the Town and became a talking point in one of the Town’s few contested elections in March 2013.

Shores officials decided to purchase signal-boosting equipment for patrol cars in lieu of a tower.

Some residents, however, still grumbled about dropped calls and not being able to use their smart phones inside their homes in parts of the town, especially in the southern part of the Shores east of A1A.

The Florida Institute of Technology briefly considered putting a tower on its Vero Marine Laboratory property.

FIT ultimately decided, however, to not host a cell tower but keep the property open for expansion of lab facilities instead.

Then County Administrator Joe Baird took the political hot-potato and ran with it as an opportunity to give island residents something they wanted.

He saw it as an opportunity at the same time for the county to collect the cash Verizon and AT&T were willing to pay to broadcast signals from a tower on a patch of county-owned shoreline behind the CVS drug store.

The county location known as Tracking Station Park was to be the Town’s silver bullet in the cell tower controversy – residents would get the boost in phone and data service, but the Town Council’s hands would remain clean because the County, not the Shores, would handle the deal.

Baird said the tower would most likely look like a flagpole and it would be attractively landscaped, giving the county a good reason to spruce up that beach facility. It seemed like the perfect solution.

Now the matter of the tower falls squarely back in the laps of Mayor Brian Barefoot and his fellow councilmen.

With the Shores budget swelling by a half-million in the fall to beef up public safety staffing, and with property taxes set to increase by nearly 14 percent to fund the recommended seven-man shifts for fire, paramedic and police service, the Town could use the revenue from a cell tower.

The Shores owns and maintains a five-acre parcel of land just north of the Tracking Station site.

Stabe said the property north of the Pebble Beach Villas condominium community does not abut homes and would seem suitable for the tower.

The closest residential street is Surf Lane to the north.

The property was not deeded to the Shores by the federal government, so there should be no replay of the county’s dashed request.

“It would be on our property and we would get the money,” Vice Mayor Jerry Weick said.

Weick, a Bermuda Bay resident who said previously that he’s had to install signal boosters at home to use his phone inside the house, said his biggest regret was letting that revenue slip out of the Shores’ hands when the project was taken up by Florida Tech, and then by the county.

“The objection was the issue that we were going to put it here,” Councilman Tom Slater said, gesturing to the public safety or fire station building. Slater said he, too had to install a signal booster in his home.

Town Clerk Laura Aldrich, who fielded many of the calls and emails from concerned citizens, reminded the council there were also objections from a segment of the Town’s residents who were concerned not so much about the aesthetics, but about the potential health risks of long-term cell tower exposure.

Stabe said he would make contact with the tower company Indian River County had been dealing with to see if they could keep the low-profile flagpole plan and just change the location.