Public safety is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of municipal government. City ordinances are enacted to ensure structures are built soundly and in accordance with state and city building codes. Inspections are made periodically to provide assurances that the construction follows the design submitted and the building codes.
Sometime between March 2014 and March 2015, a radio tower was built inside the Long Hollow Stormwater Basin, at a FAA/FCC-approved height of 400-ft.
That is about all we really know about the construction of the radio tower.
The City of Pensacola has no records detailing what contractors built the tower or if they were licensed to do the work. The building permit was in the name of Biggs Construction, but owner George Biggs told the City that neither his company nor any of his subcontractors worked on the project.
When Biggs notified the City of this in February 2015, the City issued a Stop Work Order. Using daily newspaper photographs of the tower at the time, the height of the tower is estimated to be between 186-ft and 241-ft then.
The Stop Work Order apparently had no impact on the work site. Construction continued by unknown parties until the tower reached its maximum height of 400-ft. by March 13, 2015, according documents the owner filed with the FAA. Also on the site, an equipment building was constructed without permits and by unknown contractors.
The owner of the tower has video of the old tower’s demolition in September 2014. He did not get a permit for the demolition.
The old tower was demolished, new tower constructed, and equipment building built –all without city permits and a licensed general contractor.
Neither the City nor the owner’s engineer—Leo Roberts, P.E. of Owasso, OK—inspected the concrete foundations as they were excavated and poured. The city doesn’t know who poured them, how there were excavated, what’s inside the foundations, and whether design specifications were followed.
When the city issued the Stop Work Order, staff required the concrete foundations be removed and redone.
City Inspector Bill Weeks explained the risk to public safety in a letter to the owner, dated Feb. 3, 2015: “To wit, foundations for the antenna guywires were excavated and poured without the requisite foundation inspection. These are critical items that if they failed could cause the loss of property or lives.”
The foundations were not removed. The City did not issue a new building permit—a new permit would have allowed neighbors to file an objection. The City changed its mind about the foundations. Instead, the City issued in June 2015 a permit to Repair to Code to a new general contractor.
Public record requests have uncovered few written records of City inspections of the new contractor’s work. The city provided Melanie Nichols a screenshot of an entry on the city server that indicated final inspection was done in August 2015. The entry had no initials.
The City administration has not enforced many of the basic ordinances and policies regarding construction and inspection. When citizens began to make inquiries, it appears city staff quit documenting their work on the project.
Adding even more risk to the matter, the City has no valid certificates of insurance from the owner or any of its subleases, according to public record request. The last certificate of insurance provided to investigators expired in August 2013. The taxpayers appear to be on the hook for anything that happens with the tower.
The other question is why have so many City departments—Public Works, Planning, Inspections, Legal and Risk Management—ignored the safeguards that the City has used for years to protect its citizens’ lives and properties.
Even if the mayor and city council decide tonight they need more to time to investigate the radio tower, they should demand the certificate of insurance required by the lease. They should also hire an independent structural engineer to review the construction to ensure the tower is safe and built to code and as per the plans submitted to the city. The engineer should report directly both to the mayor’s office and the council.