Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Steve Pennington and his wife, Brenda, were surprised to find the county was constructing a cell tower on the other side of their property line after they had a contract for three years to get it on their land. The the county tabled it for three years before denying it just a few months ago.
DACULA -- Gwinnett County's revenues will be boosted by the first cellphone tower located in a local park, but it is at the expense of a Dacula couple.
Steve and Brenda Pennington waited three years for commissioners to act on a proposal to put the tower on their 15-acre homestead on Hurricane Shoals Road. In June, a contract with T-Mobile that would have given the couple $1,000 a month expired.
Then, a month later, the couple was shocked to see construction begin on a tower just 100 feet from where they had proposed, just on the other side of their fence in Rabbit Hill Park.
"It's just deception," said 71-year-old Brenda Pennington. "We thought that (money) would be so great for our grandkids."
The Penningtons entered into a contract for the cell tower in June 2008, and officials worked to take the proposal through a public zoning process. After the county's planning officials recommended approval and a public hearing was held, the proposal was tabled. In fact, it was tabled 22 times before finally being denied last April.
By then, county officials had signed a lease, approving the tower on Rabbit Hill parkland in December.
"I can't believe they would get away with something like that," Pennington said of being strung along so long while the county made its own deal. "I would love for them to sit face to face and explain that. It's obvious they wanted the money instead of me."
Fresh from memories of last year's resignation of Commissioner Kevin Kenerly after he was indicted on a bribery charge involving a favorable land deal on that very acreage at Rabbit Hill, the Penningtons said the deal is another example of government taking advantage of taxpayers.
But others say the idea of putting cell towers on government property is a match made in heaven.
Ann Brooks, a spokeswoman for T-Mobile, said industry leaders have been working with governments across the Southeast. After all, governments and school systems are owners of many large tracts in varied areas.
"More and more local governments are becoming interested in the wireless market because it brings them revenue," Brooks said, mentioning that Cobb County schools have joined the trend. "It's been a long time coming and we are glad to finally be able to have access to Gwinnett County property."
She said the Penningtons were told of T-Mobile's interest in the parkland from the beginning, although the couple said they only got a suspicion about that two years into the process through a confidential conversation with another T-Mobile employee.
Commissioner Mike Beaudreau, who represents the area, said the cellphone tower vote was delayed at T-Mobile's request.
The idea of placing towers on county land came up during a process to change the local ordinance, he added, referring questions on the specific property to the cell provider.
"I'm very pleased with the overall situation," he said. "It just sounds like sour grapes, but I've got to look at the effect for everyone, not just one person. I think it's the right thing to do."
Tower proposals, he said, are often unpopular with the community, but federal law gives the county little leeway. He gave an example of a tower commissioners denied years ago on Cole Drive only to have a judge force the county to allow the structure near Parkview High School. Working with providers, he said, will give the county more say in the locations.
"The bottom line is I have to look at the effect for everyone," he said. "In a shrinking tax digest, that's a good thing. We're trying to get our tax base to be as broad and diverse as possible. ... I'm excited it's going to supplement our recreation budget and keep our taxes low."
T-Mobile is paying Gwinnett more than twice what they would have paid the Penningtons -- $2,150 a month with a 3 percent increase every year, plus $750 a month for every service that co-locates onto the tower. But Brooks said the company was willing to pay to have access to other government properties.
"Of course, you are going to want the best deal, but ... we don't need coverage just in this area of Rabbit Hill Park," she said. "I feel like it's a bigger picture. It's paramount we are able to provide service."
While individual landowners must go through a public hearing process and notify neighbors, the county commission voted on the lease agreement at Rabbit Hill at a public meeting but without a hearing or notice.
The Penningtons said they probably would not have balked at a tower going up next door if it were not for the "deception" they felt in this case.
"I've never been one to think you ought to control someone else's property," said Steve Pennington, who only asked for a privacy fence when a major business park was proposed behind his agriculturally zoned land more than a decade ago. It turned out that just a month later the county bought that land for Rabbit Hill Park, and he never got the fence he requested.
The tower's location, he pointed out, is possibly even worse for area residents since it is now even closer to the road and right across the street from Cornerstone Fellowship, an Assembly of God church his son pastors.
"I don't know if I can let this lay," he said, adding that he is in talks with an attorney. "As citizens, you get to the point where you have to stand up to them, whether you can afford to or not."
Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, who was not in office when the county voted to approve the cell tower, declined to comment.
According to Recreation Authority minutes, the county has been approached about towers at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth and Lenora Park south of Snellville. Neither have been approved, but Beaudreau said towers are in the works for at least a half dozen government sites.
Several years ago, the county placed a tower on land adjacent to Tribble Mill Park outside of Lawrenceville for police radio equipment. Cellphone providers have co-located equipment on the tower for a fee.