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South Whidbey port officials approve lease of park property for cell tower

Chris Jerome, chairman of the Port of South Whidbey board of commissioners, discusses a proposed lease agreement with AT&T at a special port meeting Wednesday.  - Brian Kelly / The Record
Chris Jerome, chairman of the Port of South Whidbey board of commissioners, discusses a proposed lease agreement with AT&T at a special port meeting Wednesday.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

FREELAND — Commissioners for the Port of South Whidbey unanimously approved an agreement with AT&T at a special meeting Wednesday and will lease part of the port's park property at Possession Point so the company can put up a 140-foot-tall cell tower.

Commissioners voted 3-0 to approve the 26-page, five-year agreement at the close of a seven-minute meeting where public comment was not allowed.

Commissioners immediately adjourned the meeting after the vote, though officials did stay for a few more minutes as neighbors to the controversial cell tower blasted the board's decision.

"I think what you're doing is wrong," Clyde Monma told port officials.

"And you should be ashamed of yourselves, frankly," he added.

Monma, a longtime critic of the cell tower, owns a home next to the park property where the cell tower will be built adjacent to the Dorothy Cleveland Trail. He promised commissioners after the meeting he would continue to fight the proposal.

Monma had previously offered the port $150,000 for the land so the cell tower wouldn't be built. The port rejected the offer and later pulled the property off the market.

Port officials have been mulling the potential for a cell tower — and the revenues it would bring in — since 2009.

Port Finance Manager Ron Rhinehart said there were plenty of reasons for approving the lease agreement.

"It would provide us a revenue stream for the maintenance of the property, it would reduce our reliance on property tax revenues, it would improve service for residents and emergency service personnel. ICOM, the 911 service, will get free access to the tower," Rhinehart said.

"And [it] maintains public stewardship of the park and trail, which as we've seen at the state and the county … is getting harder and harder to do," he added.

The port will get a $2,200 payment within 45 days of the signing of the lease agreement. The actual rent payments of $1,100 a month won't be paid until the month following the start of construction.

The contract also includes an annual increase of 3 percent each year, starting in the second year of the contract.

The initial contract would run for five years, and would be renewable for four additional five-year terms, for a total of 25 years.

If AT&T allows other companies to use the tower, the port will receive an additional $2,400 per additional user.

Rhinehart said the amount was "a compromise position."

"AT&T obviously has some concerns about how they will recoup their investment," Rhinehart said.

"I felt it was a good trade-off," he added. "We probably get a little less revenue. On the other hand, we don't insert ourselves into the middle of that negotiation [between AT&T and parties that sublease]."

The port will be able to review any proposed subleases before they are approved by AT&T.

The discussion of the agreement was short.

Port Commissioner Geoff Tapert said he walked the property on Friday and did not see any problems with the proposal.

Port Commissioner Curt Gordon recalled that local emergency officials had spoke in favor of the proposed tower, and said it would improve communications for responders.

"That was a critical piece," Gordon said.

"I think the terms that we've proposed when last we considered this have essentially survived intact with some minor changes," added Port Commission Chairman Chris Jerome.

"I'm quite pleased with it, actually," he said.

Monma, a neighbor to the port's Possession Point park property, told commissioners their reasons for approving the lease were faulty.

"This ICOM issue is a sham. It's an excuse to do whatever you want to do," Monma told port officials.

Monma also said it would take at least a decade for the port to realize the same amount of money through the cell tower lease that had already been offered by neighbors.

"It's a mistake financially," Monma told commissioners.

He said the claim that it would offset maintenance fees was also shaky, given that the port has a $3 million budget and collects a half million dollars in property taxes.

"Why you need another $13,000 a year is beyond me," he said.

Monma also discounted claims made by port officials that the cell tower would not be visible from the trail or nearby properties.

"It's not over until it's over," Monma said, adding that he would challenge the project on environmental grounds during the county permitting process.

When the port will actually see revenues from the lease, beyond the initial payment, is unclear.

Rhinehart said later that he did not know when AT&T would start the permit process or when construction would begin, but said he expected the company to move quickly after the agreement is final.

 

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