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CDD Meeting Notes, Nov. 2011: CDD Supervisors Hear Pitch on Cell Tower Alternative

At their November meeting CDD supervisors expressed interest in exploring a Distributed Antennae System, which would alleviate the need for a cell phone tower within Westchase.

Over the last half decade, representatives on the Westchase Community Association (WCA) and Community Development District (CDD) have heard pitches for the construction of a tall cell tower both on the Westchase Golf Course and in a parcel of land just north of The Shires. While resident opposition scuttled the golf course option, increasing demands for bandwidth from wireless devices as well as spotty service at Westchase’s core have cell carriers still looking for alternatives.

Alan Ruiz, President of Vertex Development, brought one possibility before the five CDD supervisors on Nov. 1. Pointing to the cell towers rimming the Westchase community but the lack of one within its boundaries, Ruiz began by citing a common complaint of many Westchase residents. “They have a hard time getting in-building service in the core of the community,” he stated. During peak usage times in the afternoon, residents, Ruiz added, are sometimes finding it impossible to make calls.

Ruiz’s proposed solution caught supervisors’ attention. “An alternative solution to putting in a cell tower in the community is a Distributive Antennae System,” he said. Ruiz stated his company was interested in working with the CDD to identify land on which it could install such a system.

While traditional cell towers range from 50 to 200 feet in height and often prompt significant opposition, some cities like Palo Alto, California and New Orleans have turned to Distributive Antennae Systems (DAS) to alleviate the visual clutter of traditional towers. A DAS uses more numerous but much shorter antennae that can be housed within aesthetically attractive light poles to provide wireless connectivity. A wired network connecting these poles then terminates in equipment at a site called a head end. Ruiz said a Westchase head end, which would roughly measure 50 feet by 50 feet, could be placed in Westchase or at its outskirts.

Ruiz’s proposal called for six 35-foot light poles/antennae in various places along the rights-of-way within the community. He acknowledged, however, that antennae heights could be further lowered by increasing the number of poles.

Ruiz stated the initial investment was in the range of $1.6 million. Once installed, his company would lease rights to the system to all interested cell carriers. After an initial time to recoup capital costs, he stated Vertex would be open to a revenue sharing plan by leasing the sites of the poles and head end, provided they were on CDD property.

CDD supervisors seemed receptive to the alternative to an enormous cell tower. “It’s something we should look at,” responded CDD Supervisor Bill Casale, who quickly offered a caveat. “We should look at it cautiously,” he added. “And not just catch the first bus in town.”

For one, Casale expressed concerns about the amount of radiation typically emanating from the DAS structures. While Ruiz stated the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates such emissions, he did not provide a clear answer regarding their actual radiation levels.

Ultimately supervisors expressed interest in CDD District Manager Andy Mendenhall identifying a consultant who could advise the district about the systems. One option, which Casale expressed interest in exploring, was to put together the system’s specifications and possibly bid it out, allowing the district to build and own the Westchase DAS. CDD Chair Mark Ragusa’s grimace at the suggestion, however, made clear that other supervisors may simply be interested in contracting with a company such as Ruiz’s, leaving maintenance and ownership of the system to another entity in exchange for a leasing or revenue-sharing deal.

Turning to other matters, supervisors unanimously approved a motion authorizing Ragusa, as chair, to sign a waiver of conflict agreement with CDD Attorney Erin Larrinaga. Larrinaga needs the waiver to negotiate with the successor to Westchase’s developer for the transfer of Westchase logos to the district as part of its acceptance of a parcel of undevelopable land lying north of The Shires.

Supervisors also took no action on a request by Harbor Links Voting Member Nancy Sells that the CDD decorate the Peabody and Radcliffe entrances to Harbor Links/The Estates with holiday lights. If undertaken, the work would be charged to the Harbor Links/The Estates account, funded only by its homeowners. Estimated by staff to be in the $2,000 range, the proposal prompted concerns from supervisors. CDD Supervisor Ernie Sylvester expressed interest in hearing the results of a Harbor Links/The Estates poll before taking action. Others, however, expressed concerns that the district could establish a precedent it would later regret if other neighborhoods asked for their entrances to be decorated in particular ways rather than in a consistent fashion controlled by the district.

Making his report, Field Manager Doug Mays stated that Mainscape began its work as the district’s landscaping contractor that day and had “hit the ground running.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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