TAMPA — Homeowners who oppose the proliferation of cell towers in their neighborhoods failed to persuade the City Council on Thursday to give them a voice in where the towers are placed.
City code now allows cell towers on school property, city land, utility easements and other locations with no public notice as long as they meet certain height and distance requirements.
"We aren't asking you to restrict them. We're only asking you to have a public hearing," said Carrie Grimail, who lives near a South Tampa school where a cell tower was proposed.
The principal of Coleman Middle School abandoned the plan after a public outcry. But Grimail said she wouldn't have even known about it if not for community activists.
"I was notified about the tower by a woman who came to my door with a petition," she said.
But an attorney for Collier Enterprises II, a company that has helped negotiate deals between cell phone providers and public schools, warned against revisiting the city's 10-year-old rules on cell phone towers. Those rules came about after significant input from residents, attorney Jim Porter said.
The ordinance may already go further than state and federal laws allow, and unraveling it could make it less effective, he added.
Federal law prohibits local governments from regulating the construction of cell phone towers due to concerns about potential health threats. Florida law says local governments can't make decisions about placement that would limit a company's ability to provide cell phone service.
But local governments can consider land use and zoning, aesthetics and safety when considering where to allow the towers, according to assistant city attorney Julie Cole.
The Hillsborough County Commission, at the request of cell phone tower opponents, agreed in February to require public hearings before issuing permits for the towers.
Council member John Dingfelder initially backed the idea of following suit in the city.
"There's no protection at all when anybody wants to put these up in parks, on public property or utilities' property," he said. "We should include a public hearing process for any tower that's going up in this city."
Council member Mary Mulhern suggested creating a task force to review the city's regulations.
Dingfelder and council member Linda Saul-Sena supported that idea, but the three did not get the fourth vote needed to set up the task force.
Council member Charlie Miranda said he believes driving while sending text messages on a cell phone is more deadly than the towers that carry their signals. Those who objected to the tower at Coleman Middle School should celebrate their victory and move on, he added.
The 10-year-old rule, council member Gwen Miller said, was hashed out with a significant public input and only a handful of people have a problem with it now.
"This has been working. I don't see anything wrong with it," she said.
Instead, the council voted unanimously in favor of Chairman Tom Scott's suggestion to send a letter to School Board members asking them to adopt formal rules that would require public discussion before installing a cell phone tower on school property.
That means the city could still install cell phone towers on its land with no public notice.
Tower opponents left Thursday's meeting disappointed.
"They took the easy way out," said Bill Cook. "I don't know what they're afraid of."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.