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Rock Springs Ridge and the Tale of Two Towers

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By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor

It started out as the feel-good story of the summer. It quickly changed into a plot-twisting Shakesperean drama with unexpected turns around every corner. Now, it has landed into the genre of JRR Tolkien.

Today's feature presentation: Rock Springs Ridge and the Tale of Two Towers.

It all started at the City Council meeting last Wednesday when Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson took time to clear up statements made at an RSR Homeowners Association meeting from earlier last week.

"In the HOA meeting, it was mentioned I would give until the end of the year to come up with a plan on Harmon Road," Nelson said. "I never said that. All I said was that if the Council wants to come back on this,... but you all heard me say 'as I read the room you've got three no-votes on selling the property to the HOA'... I have not met with anyone from the HOA since my last report to the Council."

That runs counter to a statement Rock Springs Ridge HOA President told The Apopka Voice in an email dated August 11th and published on August 12th:

“Members on our board and/or attorneys working on behalf of our board are regularly communicating with the mayor, commissioners, and attorneys to keep current with any changing conditions that might jeopardize implementation of our agreed-to proposals. Although it did not appear the mayor had the vote support of the Council at their Wednesday meeting, everyone quickly realized Harmon was the key to returning the golf course lands back to the RSR community. We were aware that the commissioner’s discussion never led to any vote, so the Harmon property remains a favorable part of our proposal.”

Commissioner Kyle Becker also expressed frustration at the statement and confirmed not communicating with the Rock Springs Ridge HOA during that time frame.

"That's where I'm struggling," he said. "There's a representation made in the media from the HOA that... I'm a little lost because they say there's a whole bunch of communications going on and I'm not getting that."

The cost of replacing a tower

Becker also had questions about the Harmon Road property and the potential costs associated with selling it.

"Obviously, the RSR update is a very fluid situation," he said. "The last City Council meeting we had intelligence that maybe was not correct... because we heard that the HOA was trying to go on their own, to do their own transaction, and it would leave Harmon out of it... but then we found out afterward that wasn't necessarily the case. So I guess knowing that Harmon is a piece of real estate that is desirable to multiple interests, and the idea that if we sell Harmon it's going to trigger expense on our part, in terms of the communication tower. So, can staff give us a point of view on what potential costs might be triggered on that property? In terms of relocating the equipment? That sort of stuff."

A Tale of Two Towers

But Nelson and City staff have a plan to offset some of those costs.

"The life expectancy of the tower is only two or three more years, but what we're trying to do is wrap-up a multi-tower deal with one of the big cellular providers like AT&T, Verizon, or somebody so we can help them," said Nelson. "And maybe they would pay for part of the tower, and we would give them access. So that's a possibility we're working through... there's a possibility for a provider that might need more bandwidth for 5G... and not have to get their own tower permitted. That would benefit both of us."

Robert Hippler, the Information Technology Director for the City, has been working on putting in a new communication tower even before the Harmon Road discussion was active. He confirmed that a cellular carrier was interested in partnering on a tower, and also gave a projection at the potential costs to install a new tower.

"Running off one tower in the north is obviously not something we want to do, because we certainly have reception issues down here on the southside of the city," said Hippler. "But what we could potentially do is run fully operational on the north tower if we were to get rid of that property sooner than later. The initial plan, prior to the land swap or any type of transaction to getting that property sold, was just to erect another tower right next to the existing tower. At the time steel was cheaper and it was going to be a cheaper venture than it was. I had another cellular carrier that was very interested in getting on because they don't have a lot of coverage in that area. There was talk of them potentially paying for that tower. Moving that tower certainly is going to be a much more costly venture."

Hippler estimated the projected cost to be $2.7 million.

"So when you think about that my only frame of reference is how much it costs to purchase and erect the north tower... and so you're thinking to yourself that's a 2-plus-million expense," said Becker. "So if you sell the Harmon property for what it's appraised... for $2.4 million, it's almost like a wash situation. But to the mayor's point, if there's an opportunity to reduce the cost by having participation strategies on where that communication can come from, it would just be helpful to know what those options are, and the cost of those options so that we know what the margin is on that transaction."

A location for the replacement tower emerges

"By the same token, if we move it, we've got to have land to put it on," said Commissioner Alexander Smith.

But Hippler disclosed that there is a plan in place for that second tower in the works.

"So the Harmon Road extension, where fire station 6 is slated to go... we have a conceptual plan and there's space behind the fire station for the tower," said Hippler. "It would allow for us to have three carriers plus our equipment [we have two carriers on it now]. The tower would only have to be 350 feet tall to give us the same coverage we have today. A site survey coverage has been done showing the exact same coverage if not better at that height. That was from Motorola."

Seeing an opportunity to possibly bring resolve to this multi-faceted issue, Nelson pushed for an official vote on the subject at the next Council meeting.

"Is this something we would want to bring up at the next Council meeting as an agenda item?" Nelson asked. "Not just as a discussion about selling Harmon Road property either to the Golf Group or the highest bidder, or do you just want to kick the can down the road a little more?"

"How imminent is the HOA?" Becker asked. "How imminent is their one side of the transaction, because otherwise, I don't see the sense of urgency."

"We can just sit on it, but obviously we kind of counted on that money, whoever we sold it to, to help fund Camp Wewa," said Nelson. "That was rec land for rec land. Obviously, we've got money in reserves and with the COVID-19 money to cover it... so it's not like we can't pay for Wewa at the end of the month. But I think right now is a great time to sell property as we all know. But I'm open to whatever the Council would like to do."

"I want to see what the cost is," Becker said. "If we're going to accelerate on the tower, I want to see what those options are before I can make an educated decision."

"That sounds like a plan," Nelson said. "Awesome."

And with that affirmation, the meeting was adjourned, and the deal to purchase the Rock Springs Ridge Golf Course got a little cloudier.

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