Cell tower opponents, while fighting scattershot battles around the county, are looking at ways to change the laws that govern tower permits.
At a meeting in the parking lot of the Brandon YMCA on Monday, homeowners from as far as Carrollwood tried to persuade County Commissioner Al Higginbotham to introduce changes to the land development code that would limit tower construction.
They say they are reaching out to other commissioners and state lawmakers, including state Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, who took notice when a tower went up at Robles Elementary School in East Tampa.
Homeowners in recent years have mobilized against towers throughout the city and suburbs, particularly on school grounds.
Controversial sites that have won approval include the YMCA where Monday's meeting took place; a small shopping center on Henderson Boulevard in South Tampa, where neighbors staged a protest that same evening; and Cannella Elementary School in Carrollwood. Tampa City Council was to take a second vote on the Henderson Boulevard site on Thursday.
Carrie Grimail, an anti-tower activist in South Tampa, acknowledged that the fights can be frustrating. "I'll tell you why," she said. "The laws that are there were written by the lobbyists."
She and her neighbors scuttled a planned tower at Coleman Middle School after the principal weighed in against it, which is an option under school district policy.
In December, a Hillsborough County land use hearing officer denied a tower application at Buchanan Middle School in the Lake Magdalene area on grounds that it would create an unpleasant view, was inconsistent with a future land use plan and might not even be needed. Collier Enterprises II, the developer, appealed that ruling. A hearing is set for April 9.
Collier president Stacy Frank, a lawyer now running as a Democrat for a state House seat, has been involved in many of these battles. Her company has a contract with the school district to lease land for the towers.
Health concerns cannot be cited
The opponents, who say excessive radio wave emissions can cause dizziness, headaches and perhaps cancer, cannot block tower construction on those grounds. That's because the federal government establishes emission guidelines, then presumes the towers are safe if they are followed.
They can argue that the towers will be eyesores, lower property values or create other hazards; for example, they might topple in a storm, or children might be injured when playing on the surrounding equipment.
Ellen and Lee Vaughan, who are at the forefront in the battle at Buchanan, are asking for greater setbacks to protect surrounding buildings and their occupants. They also worry about flying debris from damaged towers.
"This is the lightning capital of the world," said Lee Vaughan, who asked for a 1,500-foot setback.
Jim Porter, a lawyer for Collier, said modern towers are held to the same standards as other buildings in Florida, which enable them to withstand hurricane-force winds. "To my knowledge, there has never been a failure of a tower in Florida," he said.
Denise Verrill, a Seffner homeowner who was involved in the YMCA dispute, said she also would like to see a provision that would deny a tower permit if there was enough opposition from surrounding neighbors.
Many neighborhood associations are not aware of the petitions, she said, partly because the county has a confusing way of registering them. "We have no voice," she said.
Near the Buchanan site, Ellen Vaughan said, "our homeowner association, which borders the school — we share a fence with the school — was not notified."
Higginbotham said he would study the materials the activists gave him and arrange a meeting in about a week.
"The cell companies, I'm sure, are going to say they've got to have them to keep quick and efficient service," he said, suggesting the county might give businesses incentives to put towers in their parking lots.
State and federal laws to consider
Porter, a former assistant county attorney, said it is not easy for local government to increase setbacks.
First, there is the Federal Communications Commission, which announced recently that it wants to make broadband service more widely available.
In addition, the state's E-911 legislation requires local governments to consider coverage needs when weighing in on where to allow a cell tower.
"We try to find sites where we are not going to have an impact," Porter said. "But when it comes to residential areas, that's where the need is."
He also denies that they lower property values. If anything, he said, good signals make a home more desirable.
Mike Rothenburg, a cell tower opponent in South Tampa, said his understanding of the E-911 law gives local governments plenty of latitude in mandating setbacks.
He said he thinks that as more lawmakers hear from their constituents, the issue will bubble up in the Legislature.
"And at some point," he said, "we will be back in front of the School Board."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4602.