KEY LARGO -- Despite grief from a few community members, the Monroe County Planning Commission voted 4-1 to approve a cellular phone tower near mile marker 95.
The tower is expected to bring better reception to a dead service zone between Tavernier and Key Largo.
Opponents, who claimed the developer didn't thoroughly review other possible locations for the tower, brought their own expert to testify before the commission.
In this case, opponents said the developer picked the tower's location based on site availability and financial considerations, then looked for other potential locations in the immediate area. Residents, though, said they should have used the center of the dead zone as a starting point for their search.
"The alternative analysis was always biased because they found a property owner that was ready to go," Tavernier resident Omar Gadalla said.
Gadalla presented the commission with a list of reasons it should deny the tower, including a claim that service was good enough without a 130-foot structure. He provided snapshots of his smartphone at different locations in Taverner. Each shot revealed that he had available service and was never in a dead zone.
Representatives from the cellphone company, however, testified that bars on one's phone don't necessarily reflect actual service availability.
Lauralee Westine, an attorney representing the developer, SBA Communications, described the proposed location as ideal and said her client had previously compromised by lowering the tower height from 180 to 130 feet.
Planning Commissioner Ron Miller, who represents Key Largo, including the area of the proposed tower, voted against the installation.
Miller, agreeing with the opposition's argument, said he couldn't support the tower because of lack of research for an alternate location. Most of the commission agreed with Miller but decided to approve the project anyway.
"It's like trying to figure out where you want to put a wart," said chairman William Wiatt. "So you decide to put a wart right next to another wart."
The position of the tower will be just off the highway near power poles that rise 70 feet into the air. The hole for the tower will be 20 to 25 feet deep and 6 feet in diameter.
Opponents also complained that the local business at the site couldn't comment honestly on the project because its landlord, Chris Sante, had a financial interest in the tower.
Chris Sante, who owns the property where the tower would be placed, said cellular service representatives approached him about installing the tower to fill the last cell service gap for AT T customers in the Upper Keys.
A lease agreement with the developer calls for Sante to earn $9,000 annually for the use of his land.
In addition to the Key Largo tower, the commission approved updating its development agreement with Key Largo Ocean Resorts. The new agreement will allow for 76 marina slips, up from 65. It also calls for the resort to be turned into a condominium association and extends the completion date to the end of 2018.