Scenic 98 Cell towers on hold: City and company reviewing options

Savannah Vasquez
This small cell tower near the Crab Trap is one of two erected along scenic Hwy. 98 this year.

Discussion of the two small cell towers that were placed along Scenic Highway 98 in June was back on the table at a recent city council meeting as the subcontractor for Verizon Wireless, Southern Light presented new information for the city to review. The towers had been erected without proper permits and before the council members were given a chance to vote.

City Development Manager Steve Schmidt told The Log that the city is partly to blame for the construction faux pas of the poles, as a permit was approved for the company to build on the right-of-way, however two additional permits were found to be needed after the two 33-foot poles where already installed.

“They got right-of-way permits, but they required additional permits for electrical to connect power to it and a building permit that needs approval by the city council,” said Schmidt. “It was a mistake on our part to issue the right-of-way permits, but there were errors on both sides.”

Schmidt said that as the city looks to improve the streetscape of Destin in coming years, council members and city staff will reassess the placement and height of the poles before moving forward to allow the poles to be activated.

“The long-term vision for the city along U.S. 98 is to make all of the utilities underground,” said Schmidt. “The last thing we want to do is put more cell towers up.”

During the meeting council members suggested that the fiber optic equipment be attached to shorter lamp-like poles along the roadway to give an aesthetic and dual-functionality to the posts.

“We want it to blend in when we put our street-scaping in,” said Schmidt. “We’ve seen some examples incorporated into light poles where the shorter light poles could accommodate both the city and the wireless companies with a box at the base of it.”

However, Southern Light Chief Operating Officer Eric Daniels said that this approach, with shorter posts would mean more poles or structures would need to be put in place to create the same coverage area.

“When you decrease the height of one of these things it literally may take four to do what two were doing before,” Daniels said to the council. “They are not cell towers…they are kind of like if you think of the actual cell tower as an octopus with the head being what you think of as the cell tower, these guys are kind of like little tentacles that reach out and help cover the areas that the main cell tower cannot.”

Even with Daniels explanation that one tower could host multiple cell carriers, as Southern Light is the main fiber optic provider in Destin, council members leaned towards the removal of the towers currently placed in front of the Crab Trap, and Destiny property.

“The response was that those existing poles need to be taken down or shortened,” said Schmidt. “There is a big difference between a 33 ½-foot pole and a 22-foot light pole and unfortunately, it looks like they will have to remove those. We are working with them and are trying to accommodate them, I think they are exploring their options.”

For their part, Southern Light wants to act fast as they have been working to activate these towers for two months as their original timeframe with Verizon was to have them complete by late June.

“It sounds like the city council is going to request that the poles are removed which is a disappointment to us but we are looking to find a mutually beneficial solution, said William Hanes, director of corporate communications and public affairs for Southern Lights. “We are working on borrowed time right now, so our timeline is as soon as possible.”

Company representatives were set to meet with the City Manager Tuesday to discuss the issue further.

“We have no problem with the city developing a standard with the light poles,” said Daniels. “That sets the parameters for us we know how to work with that. It may change the actual physics of it; it may not work depending on the height that it needs to be at. But at least we will have something to go back to the wireless carriers with saying, ‘Look, this is how you have to do it here.’”