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Tower plan divides church, neighbors

Lakeview Presbyterian wants to lease part of its property to Verizon, so the company can erect a cell phone tower.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Lakeview Presbyterian Church, which scoffed at white flight and stayed behind to minister in a changing neighborhood, now finds itself at odds with the people it befriended. At issue is a 145-foot-tall cellular phone tower.

The church, which has 106 active members, wants to let Verizon Wireless erect a tower much taller than its 80-foot steeple as a way to bring in money for its ministries. Neighbors want no part of it.

They say the towering structure would be unsightly and hurt the neighborhood they are working so hard to improve.

Church officials counter that income from leasing a bit of its property to the phone company would be used to continue Lakeview Presbyterian's service to the community and help offset some of the church's financial obligations.

Neither Lakeview Presbyterian nor Verizon will divulge how much money the church would get to lease a patch of its property that would be a little more than four parking spaces.

"We don't want to do anything to harm the neighborhood or the property values of the neighborhood or the aesthetics of the neighborhood," said the Rev. Todd W. Sutton, pastor of the church at 1310 22nd Ave. S.

"We don't think that this is going to do that, but we understand there is a difference of opinion. We are also committed to continuing to work with them in areas where we agree."

Verizon hopes to sell its plans to residents on Thursday. Bernice Darling, president of the Lake Maggiore Shores Neighborhood Association, has invited the company and two other neighborhood groups to the meeting, which will begin at 7 p.m. at the Enoch Davis Center.

"We are vehemently in opposition to it," Mrs. Darling said of Verizon's plans.

"What they are proposing is a cell phone tower in the shape of a cross to the rear of the church. We love our community and feel it is inappropriate. It's going to be visually intrusive. We are going to be launching a petition drive. We really appreciate what the church is doing in the community, but a large percentage of the church members do not live in the community. They come and worship and go back to their community. We are friends, but we are on opposite ends."

Mrs. Darling, whose neighborhood runs from Dr. M.L. King Jr. Street S to 22nd Street S and 22nd Avenue S to Lake Maggiore, says the communications tower also would affect the adjoining communities of Cromwell Heights and Fruitland Heights.

"I've talked with those presidents and they are in opposition too," she said.

Chuck Hamby, regional public relations manager for Verizon Wireless, said the company simply is trying to provide "seamless" cell phone coverage and prevent problems such as dropped calls.

"That's an area that has been identified as needing some enhancement," he said.

Mrs. Darling disagrees.

"I'm using their cell phone right now," she said during an interview late last week from her home near the church.

"They would be better partners to the community if they look for a site that is not a residential area and that would not have such a drastic impact."

A proposal to erect a tower a few blocks away, on 18th Avenue S, was opposed by neighbors and did not go through. With a cross on top to disguise its actual function, the proposed communications tower on the Lakeview Presbyterian property is being described by Verizon officials as a "stealth monopole."

Kathy Winkler, project manager for site acquisition for Verizon Wireless, said the pole would be taller than the church, but would be unobtrusive. Antennas and cables, she said, would be hidden within the pole. Verizon does not build many of these disguised cell phone towers, she said.

"Probably one of the closest ones is in Bradenton, and it's a flag pole," she said.

The proposal for the tower would have to be approved by the city, but no plans have been filed with the city, said John Hixenbaugh, a zoning official.

Agreeing to let Verizon build the cell phone tower is in keeping with its mission, Lakeview Presbyterian officials say. The church, which was founded as an all-white congregation, embraced desegregation in the mid-'60s and the black community that started moving in around the church.

Church members who remained began a tradition of commitment to civil rights and social service. They permitted the church to be used as a meeting place during the teachers strike in 1968 and the garbage workers strike that year. Parents whose children were being bused for desegregation met there. In 1966, Lakeview became the site of the first Head Start program in Pinellas County. Two years later the church established Operation Attack, which continues to help the poor with food, clothing and other necessities. The Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center, which opened in 1984 and is named after the first black person awarded a doctorate from a Florida state university, is housed on church property.

About three years ago, the congregation received a surprise gift of $700,000, which the church pledged to use to offset its annual deficit and to continue its commitment to social justice.

Troy Cox, a church leader, said the recently signed agreement with Verizon is a prudent decision.

"What we are really trying to do is use the resources the church has to continue its work in the community," he said.

As for the aesthetics, Cox said he understands the Verizon equipment would be a white pole "with a little, tiny cross at the top."

"It is a cell tower, but it is disguised in a very tasteful way. In my personal opinion, it's nothing that will harm anybody," Cox said.

Mrs. Darling says she understands the church's position, but is concerned about her neighborhood.

"The actual steeple is 80 feet, but this is going to be so much higher," she said.

"I know that the church can use the resources that can be generated from this, but we are preparing to meet each other -- not in battle, but in public hearing."

"It's very clear that Bernice and the association care very much for the neighborhood and we do, too," said Sutton, Lakeview Presbyterian's pastor.

"We want to continue to reach out and be good neighbors."

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