By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
A stalled tower project in a Hollywood park is blocking a fully functional 911 radio system for Broward – nearly four years after the Parkland school massacre created an urgent need for an upgrade.
First responders who demanded a reliable, countywide radio network got almost all they wanted when 15 sites went live last December. But the 911 radio coverage for southeastern coastal Broward still lags, Mike Moser, spokesperson for the Fire Chiefs Association of Broward County, acknowledged in an interview with Florida Bulldog.
“The delay is frustrating,” Moser said. “However, looking forward, now that this [West Lake Park] site is going to happen, we’re excited that the system will be working as it’s designed.”
The delay has many causes, both natural and political. The COVID-19 pandemic put everything on hold. But a big factor has been politics, in particular, county leadership’s hard-ball tactics that finally succeeded at placing the tower in Hollywood’s West Lake Park, a green and watery oasis with a lot of vocal protectors.
“Broward County is trying to make an example of the city,” Marlin Muller, a Miami lawyer who once represented the “Save West Lake Park” group, told Florida Bulldog last year. “The part I’ve always found mind-blowing is how hellbent the county is on making sure not just that they win, but that they punish the city on an epic level for not doing what they’re told.”
On Sunday at the park, temporary orange fencing enclosed a grassy keep-away zone roughly the size of a baseball infield. Apparently it marks the future home of the tower that Motorola will build in the park located south of Sheridan Street and a mile west of the Intracoastal Waterway.
CALLS FOR 911 SYSTEM UPGRADE
The 65-acre park has a small marina for kayak and canoe rentals, a mangrove-fringed lake and an Intracoastal channel, picnic tables, a playground, and courts for basketball, tennis and racquetball. On a pleasant weekend afternoon people were using the courts and celebrating a child’s birthday with food and a bounce house.
The only visible utility structure was a colorful water tower.
The 325-foot tower slated for West Lake Park will be the 16th and final piece of an improved countywide 911 radio network. Broward police and fire chiefs clamored for a better system after a gunman killed 17 people and injured 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018.
First responders said their radios failed that day, forcing them to use hand signals and slowing their response to the mass shooting. They told the state school safety commission that Broward’s county-run 911 radio system was so bad, the Broward Sheriff’s Office should take over.
“This ain’t fixable the way it is,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, head of the commission, complained at a June 2019 meeting.
Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry responded to the prospect of handing control to BSO by announcing a 16-site upgrade that included West Lake Park. Some delays in the park project stem from widespread reluctance to sacrifice any of this long-protected green space and mangrove preserve under pressure from Henry.
Her power plays include a 2019 civil lawsuit that threatened to seek money damages from Hollywood for allegedly welching on a deal to use the West Lake Park site for the 911 tower.
BIZARRE LAND SWAP WITH, UH, TAMARAC
When the city and county settled the tower dispute earlier this year, the lawsuit went away. It looked like Henry’s lawyers convinced the city to back down.
“The resolution of the litigation between the county and the city should not be characterized as ‘backing down,’ ” said Hollywood spokesperson Raelin Storey. “The city’s primary focus has always been ensuring emergency communication services for first responders and residents under the regional system.”
According to the county, a complicated maneuver was needed to sidestep a Broward County charter prohibition against using regional parks such as West Lake for non-park purposes.
The county promised a distant Broward municipality, Tamarac, $62,000 annually to execute a bizarre “land swap.” The county paid a Davie landowner $890,000 for a separate piece of property that it “swapped” with Tamarac for the entranceway and only road into West Lake Park.
The county deeded the West Lake Park property to Tamarac because, as owner of the property, it could not allow the tower’s construction. Once Tamarac was the legal owner, the tower could be built.
So the county is spending almost a million dollars, plus its new annual payment to Tamarac, to put the 911 tower on its chosen site. Notably, none of the money is going to Hollywood.
Attorney Muller has called the land swap “convoluted and crazy.” The proposal was shouted down and shelved by the Tamarac City Commission at first, then revived and approved.
DISAPPEARING PROPERTY DEEDS
Curiously, property deeds that protect the park have disappeared, according to anti-tower activists who’ve asked the county records office to produce them. The office responded with sketchy quit claim deeds, not the follow-up deeds that require the park to be preserved as a park.
“I can’t find it anywhere. I’ve looked everywhere,” said Rita Lipof, a Hollywood resident who opposes the park tower. “They say this is the deed, this quit claim deed from 1977,and there’s no restrictions in this deed.”
The county’s mantra is that public safety is its only motivation and immediate goal. But providing the best 911 radio network for everyone seems dependent on the tower in West Lake Park. No one has announced a completion date for the project.
“This has nothing to do with public safety,” said Charlotte Roth, another Hollywood resident who opposes the tower. “This is about breaking the barriers to building in regional parks.
“If this was about public safety, the county would have purchased a new system with 5G technology, as most major cities are doing, instead of an overpriced, outdated system that Motorola provided,” Roth said.
“And an antenna would be on top of a tall, modern, hurricane-proof building more distant from the ocean and not in a flood basin,” she added.
Roth accused the county of “irresponsibly spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars to desecrate a public park, lie to the public and break the law.” The reported price tag for the countywide 911 radio project is $80 million.
COUNTY’S NO COMMENTS
Henry, who has announced she’ll retire in March, did not respond to a text message from Florida Bulldog seeking her input for this story. Director of Regional Emergency Services & Communications Tracy Jackson likewise did not respond to requests for comment.
Before Henry doubled down on the West Lake Park tower site, the county and Hollywood explored other options for housing 911 radio equipment. At one point, it seemed the rooftop of the 11-story Circ Hotel in Young Circle would be chosen; at another, the Eco Grande golf course on Taft Street was under consideration.
Finally, everyone except the anti-tower activists selected West Lake Park. Moser, the fire chiefs’ spokesperson, defended the choice.
“An alternative location was reasonable to consider, but at the end of the day, you needed a tower,” he said. “The higher the tower, the greater the functionality of the equipment. The higher the equipment, the better the system for the end-user. So that’s why the lower-height-building option wasn’t as good as the tower.
“As a resident of Broward, I think that the West Lake Park group had a very reasonable concern for having a tower built in their backyard,” Moser said. “But we also hope that they understand the necessity of building on that site because it will allow our responders to use the radio system in its most optimal form.”