County commissioners rebuke emergency services director for failure to check with Englewood Water District and for request to waive a county policy on separation of towers
On Feb. 7, Sarasota County Emergency Services Director Rich Collins is expected to be back before the County Commission to seek approval of the location of an Englewood-area tower needed as part of the county’s updated emergency communications system.
On Jan. 11, county staff had anticipated the commission’s rezoning of an approximately 24.66-acre segment of the Englewood Sports Complex property and the granting of a special exception to allow the tower to stand 266 feet tall on that site. Instead, almost an hour of discussion ensued, with Commissioner Alan Maio rebuking Collins and his team for failing to check with the Englewood Water District about the potential for erecting the tower on nearby district property.
“I have never been more aggravated, more anxious or more annoyed that we didn’t do a better job,” Maio told Collins, referring to an examination of all the potential sites for the new structure.
Commissioner Charles Hines also expressed displeasure. First, he pointed out that the construction of the tower as proposed would eliminate the potential of another ball field there, when such amenities are needed badly in South County. Second, Hines took issue with staff’s seeking the board’s approval of a waiver regarding the construction of the tower closer to a second tower than county policy allows.
When Commissioner Mike Moran asked Collins whether continuing the public hearing to allow staff more time to investigate Maio’s suggestion would prevent the county from meeting a deadline in its shift to the new emergency communications system, Collins replied that Sarasota County staff has been working with Manatee County staff on the project, and the goal is to keep moving forward.
However, Collins offered no indication that continuing the hearing for the three to four weeks necessary for further research would cause a significant problem.
Maio pointed out that he always has advocated for making certain the county’s 911 communications system works as well as possible. “I will never do anything to hurt our first responders, for many reasons, but, especially, because my son’s one of them.”
Maio’s son is a deputy with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, Maio has noted in past meetings. Still, Maio told Collins, “I’m confounded that we did not even ask [the Englewood Water District representatives].”
Collins might come back on Feb. 7 and say that district would not allow the tower on its property, Maio continued. “And I’ll be the fool for having delayed you a month … but at least we dotted the i and crossed that t.”
In September 2012, the County Commission voted to allow the county’s Emergency Services staff to advertise a Request for Proposals for a consultant to help with the specifications for a new public safety radio system to replace one that was 16 years old and failing.
The goal was to make certain all public safety officers in the county, as well as the staffs of Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) and the Sarasota County School District, could communicate with each other over one system. County staff pointed to Sept. 11, 2001, when the inability of the New York City Fire Department to communicate seamlessly via radios with the New York City Police Department hampered the response to the terrorist attack on the city.
In 2013, the county commissioners agreed to collaboration between Sarasota and Manatee counties on a new 800 MHz radio system.
In the commission’s agenda packet for the Jan. 11 meeting, a staff document explained that the 800 MHz communications network upgrades will necessitate the construction of towers “in strategic locations throughout the County to support the growing demands and coverages to residents.”
Collins told the commissioners that 18 towers will be used to simulcast radio broadcasts within the system, and the Englewood tower also must be able to reach Charlotte County.
The site staff selected on the Englewood Sports Complex property — which is located at 1300 S. River Road — is zoned Residential, Single-Family, the staff document noted. However, the county’s Telecommunications Tower and Facilities Ordinance allows towers only up to 125 feet in that zoning district. On the other hand, the document continued, in a Government Use district, the tower could be the 266-foot height the new communications system’s specifications dictate. Therefore, a rezoning of the site would be needed, and then the board would have to grant a special exception for the tower to exceed the 150-foot height allowed in that type of district.
The Jan. 11 public hearing
After Chair Paul Caragiulo pointed out that the item was listed on the agenda with the notation, “Presentation upon Request,” he told his colleagues he had two cards from members of the public who wished to address the board.
“This process is still fairly new, and, usually, it’s things that aren’t controversial,” Hines said of the use of the “Presentation Upon Request” designation for certain business matters.
A six-month pilot program in 2015 — before the policy was formally implemented — showed the board had saved about a day-and-a-half of meeting time.
Commissioner Moran then questioned Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy about how best to proceed. Roddy suggested the board hear a staff presentation and then allow the public speakers the usual allocation of 5 minutes each.
In regard to the item, Roddy added, “I think this has attracted more attention than it did at the Planning Commission [hearing] …”
(On Nov. 17, 2016, the Planning Commission members voted 7-0 to recommend that the County Commission approve both the rezoning and the special exception.)
When he addressed the commissioners, county Planner Jack Wilhelm also explained that the board would need to grant the waiver for the tower to be less than the 3,500-foot distance from another tower required under county policy. If the new tower were erected as proposed, Wilhelm said, it would be only about 1,520 feet from that existing tower.
During Hines’ initial questioning of Collins about the location, Collins explained that he and his staff had worked with the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department staff and the county’s civil engineers to determine the best site. One concern, Collins pointed out, is the need to be able to extend utilities to the tower. Staff also had to take into consideration floodplain and wetlands issues on the complex property, Collins added.
Then Maio told Collins, “After spending almost two decades working on [the adjacent] Thomas Ranch, I know to the south of the ranch, and probably contiguous to our [property], and to the west, is the Englewood Water District.” Did Collins ask its representatives about building the tower on the district’s property?, Maio asked.
When Collins replied that road access was a concern, Maio said he knows some type of road exists in that area, to enable district staff to service well heads.
Then Collins conceded that staff had not consulted anyone with the water district.
Collins pointed out that the new communications system will serve 58 agencies with 6,000 radios, and those will be portable radios worn at the hip, often having to operate inside buildings.
When Hines asked whether Collins was saying that a tower on the water district site would not “work as efficiently” as one on the Sports Complex property, Collins responded, “No, that’s not what I’m saying.”
“I wanted to confirm that for the record,” Hines told Collins.
When Hines then asked the purpose in the county’s regulations for the 3,500-foot separation between towers, Wilhelm told him, “to prevent their proliferation” and to encourage co-location of services on towers.
Why would the commission want to waive its own rule, Hines asked, “other than that we’re government and we can?” Hines added, “I think this sends a bad message to the public.”
Moran asked for further clarification: “We don’t want people having towers right next to each other, and encourage co-using of towers for private providers. Is that a fair summary?”
“That is a fair summary,” Collins responded.
Staff did consider 11 existing towers, Collins continued, but for a variety of reasons — including concerns about interference with the emergency communications system — the project team eliminated them as options.
The board ended up hearing remarks of three speakers, who offered varying concerns in objecting to the tower’s proposed location. Among those they cited was the elimination of a future ball field site at the Sports Complex and worry that if a hurricane blew down the tower on that property, it would cause significant damage.
Following their comments, Collins asked for the continuation of the hearing until Feb. 7, which would give staff time to consult with the water district.
“I think that’s the right thing to do,” Hines told him. If, after further investigation, the Sports Complex site still appeared to be the best one, Hines said, he would defer to Collins. “But we haven’t heard that yet.”