PSL Planning & Zoning Board recommends St. Lucie West cell tower previously rejected by City Council in 2019

PORT ST. LUCIE – The majority of the Planning & Zoning Board here recommended approval June 1 of a shortened and redesigned cell phone tower for the parking lot of the St. Lucie Trail Golf Club that the City Council rejected in 2019 despite the advisory board’s recommendation of approval at the time.

Assistant City Attorney Elizabeth Hertz prefaced the quasi-judicial hearing with a warning to both P&Z members and the public of what could not be considered as competent substantial evidence in making a recommendation to the Council on the St. Lucie West cell tower.

“The Telecommunication Act does limit some of what the Board looks at with regard to cell towers,” she said. “There are many limitations, including a prohibition against state and local government regulation of the placement, construction and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of direct or indirect environmental effects of radiofrequency emissions. Environmental effects have been construed broadly to also mean potential direct or indirect health risk to the public based on the emissions. The decrease in property values may not be considered substantial evidence if the decrease is based solely on fear of some type of environmental or health issue.”

Long Range Planning Administrator Patti Tobin then described the proposed site at 460 S.W. Utility Drive where Jupiter-based RG Towers wants to build a new tower to fill a service gap.

“This would be a lease of approximately 2,000 square feet along the eastern edge of the maintenance facility [for the St. Lucie Trail Golf Club],” she said. “The Site Plan Review Committee reviewed the concept plan on April 28 and recommended approval.”

Vice Chairwoman Melissa Stephenson – who cast the lone dissenting vote on the latest recommendation – immediately posed a couple of clarifying questions.

“Was this originally proposed at 150 feet?” she asked.

“It was, and that’s included in your staff report,” Ms. Tobin replied. “Back in late 2019, the height was 150 feet, and it was a monopole as opposed to a monopine. They are meeting the conditions of staff in regards to landscaping and that kind of thing with this proposal.”

The vice-chairwoman also wanted Ms. Tobin to confirm what became of the requested special exception for that originally proposed 150-foot tower.

“That was denied by Council,” the latter said.

RG Towers representative Holly Valdez emphasized that the Port St. Lucie City Council denied the request in October of 2019 due to what its members viewed as inadequate screening and incompatibility. She believes the company has since addressed both those concerns.

“Our plan now includes that buffer to the north, which is the closest residential,” she said. “Another reason was incompatibility, including size, height, access, light and noise. So, we’ve dropped the height by 20 percent to 120 [feet]. There’s no light, there’s no noise, and the size comes down. We’ve redesigned the tower [as a] stealth monopine versus the traditional monopole or one of those self supports that you find at Crosstown and I-95.”

Vice-Chairwoman Stephenson then had questions for Ms. Valdez on the company’s level of community input in the redesigned stealth tower posing as a 120-foot-tall pine tree.

“How did you come up with the design you guys chose versus perhaps having meetings in the community to let the residents help pick the design?” she asked.

Ms. Valdez reminded her that the monopine idea had come up in prior Council discussions.

“It was clear the Council did not like the monopole and they did not like flagpoles, and so that came from discussions from our hearing,” she answered. “You probably remember [that] it went on until about one in the morning.”

When the vice-chairwoman continued to cast doubt on the level of community input sought by RG Towers, Ms. Valdez described at least two public meetings that failed to draw much of the neighboring residents.

“The first time around we send out 445 letters to all the properties within 750 feet, and we had eight people show up,” she said. “Two people stormed out before we could even make our presentation, at which time we had graphs and pictures and everything. This time we had about 53 people, [with] the same amount of letters sent.”

A handful of area residents spoke out against the conditional use request, including Southwest Palm Drive resident Angelica Bortone, who opposed the previous rendition in 2019 and considered the current proposal no better.

“I consider myself the most affected resident by this project due to the proximity to my home,” she said. “Since the last proposal, the only changes that RC Towers made is a decrease in the height, which makes the situation worse because now it’s going to be sitting lower, meaning it’s going to be closer to our bodies, and we already know the consequences of that. The other change is a bad camouflage that will not make it pretty and will not make it less harmful.”

Ms. Bortone wasn’t the only resident playing the health-risk card despite the warning from the deputy city attorney. Southwest Fairway Landing homeowner Dale Bancroft cited additional research by the American Academy of Pediatrics and information compiled by the president of the Fairway Isles Homeowners Association as ample reason to reject the current application.

“Nearby schools and churches are well within the risk area of radio frequency electromagnetic radiation, which would be created by the proposed tower,” he said. “An annotated bibliography was included with a written submission from Randy Defrene, who is the president of the HOA of Fairway Isles, which is associated with St. Lucie West County Club Estates. The bibliography contains approximately three dozen reviewed published research articles on cell tower radiation and base station radiation health effects.”

For her part, Country Club Estates HOA Secretary and local realtor Susan Brown played another card Ms. Hertz warned against.

“The National Association of Realtors has done many surveys, and they tell you that 70 percent of the people will not live in an area where there is a cell phone tower,” she said. “Every one of the members sitting here today would not want a 120-foot tower that looks like an overgrown tree sitting in the middle of their backyard. I would hope that you all turn it down.”

Vice-Chairwoman Stephenson concurred with her assessment.

“I’m sorry, it’s a terrible location,” she exclaimed. “Why can’t it be behind a commercial building in an open area of land somewhere?”

Although Ms. Valdez insisted the Telecommunications Act prohibited her from even discussing the health or property values fears, she did address the vice-chairwoman’s idea while emphasizing the dearth of collocation opportunities on existing towers in the immediate area of service need.

“Publix said no in the Publix parking lot,” she said. “There’s some commercial properties over there that said no, and [St. Lucie West] Water Treatment said no. A lot of commercial parcels along St. Lucie West Boulevard are very small, and we ruled them out because they’re not big enough or they’re not zoned. So, it’s not quite as simple as put it in a parking lot.”

After much more discussion, the Board voted 4-1 to recommend approval to the City Council, with Vice-Chairwoman Stephenson dissenting.

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