In a controversial move, the Liberty County Commission voted 6-1 to approve the construction of a cell phone tower on Colonel’s Island.
The decision was made during this month’s meeting.
Liberty County Clerk of Courts Barry Wilkes, who was represented by attorney Tom Ratcliffe, aggravated practically all of his neighbors on the island when he announced he would work with Skylink Properties to build a 300-foot cell tower on his property off Lake Pamona Road, resident Richard Bew said.
According to Ratcliffe, Wilkes is offering a public service to the community by sacrificing his land to build a cell tower that (in Wilkes’ opinion) will increase the safety and communication of the nearby residents by providing roughly a 16-mile circumference of cell phone service to the area.
But the community won’t be the only one benefiting from the placement of the tower.
Wilkes will most likely receive $7,500 to $10,000 a year for a set amount of years depending upon the negotiated contract with Skylink, Jim Gilly of Gilly Development said.
Bew, represented by attorney Derek White, attempted to halt the approval of the tower since his property is adjacent to Wilkes’.
He said the tower would create an eyesore, pose health risks and depreciate the value of his land.
As Ratcliffe explained Wilkes’ case to the commission, Commissioner Marion Stevens came to the defense of Bew, who resides in his district.
Stevens asked Liberty County Planning Commission Director Sonny Timmerman whether the tower would devalue Bew’s property since it would be an eyesore.
“The tower could have some negative impacts on the surrounding properties,” Timmerman said.
In Wilkes’ defense, Ratcliffe said, “The public need for (cellular) use is greater than any possible depreciative effects or damage to nearby properties.
White pointed out the LCPC failed to adhere to ordinance 12.4.5, regulating setbacks and separations.
During this past month’s planning commission meeting, Timmerman and his staff did not bring the ordinance to light, and it could have prevented the planning commission from approving Wilkes’ tower, White said.
“The ordinance states the tower shall be set back at a minimum distance equal to the height of the tower from its base ... to an adjoining property line,” he said.
“We were told the tower location would be moved on site, but it never was,” Timmerman said. “I think (the ordinance) just fell through the cracks.”
When he brought up the ordinance, Commissioner Pat Bowen asked Ratcliffe if the height of the tower could be lowered to 275 feet, and Ratcliffe agreed to lower the tower from 300 feet to 275 feet.
“We are disgusted with this ruling,” Bew said. “The commissioners knew how they were going to vote before the meeting ever started, and they didn’t listen to our case, and they broke the law by not obeying this ordinance.”
But County Administrator Joey Brown said when it was agreed to lower the tower to 275 feet, the requirements of the ordinance had been met.
The only way the tower can be moved away from Bew’s property is if the other adjoining property owners agree to have it moved nearer to their properties, Timmerman said.
If the cell tower is constructed (following the approval of FCC regulations and environmental checks), two carriers have already planned to use it — Hargray and Cingular, Wilkes said.
In the meantime, Gilly is proposing to build a cell phone tower off Camp Viking Road where there are no nearby residents.
“This is the most blatant display of good-old-boy syndrome I’ve ever seen. The tower should be built on Camp Viking in an uninhabited area. But the commission wanted to make Barry (Wilkes) happy,” Colonel’s Island resident Nancy Clees said, obviously frustrated.
Bew said he still respects Wilkes as a neighbor, but plans to keep fighting to prevent the tower from being erected.