Condo presidents object to cost, safety of utility burial plan

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Daily News
By William Kelly

Published June 13, 2017


When it comes to burying overhead utilities, leave us out.

That’s the message some South End condominium presidents delivered to Town Council members this week in a letter stating several objections to the town-wide undergrounding project.

“Our properties will be disfigured and, therefore, devalued” by “unsightly and dangerous” metal electrical transformer boxes that are installed on concrete pads as part of an underground system, the presidents contend.

Safety was cited as a concern. The boxes will be “vulnerable to explosions” because of heat and water intrusion, the letter states.

The town is attempting to persuade the condo associations to grant 8-foot-wide easements for the metal transformer boxes, and the town has agreed to landscape them at its own cost. But some of the buildings have refused. As of Friday, the town had obtained eight easements, and owner approval for seven more, out of a total of 25 easements needed in the South End.

Town Manager Tom Bradford said, however, that of the remaining 10, the owners in many cases are waiting for the council to launch the first phase of the project before agreeing to grant the easement.

In cases where an easement is not granted, the plans must be modified so the boxes can be placed in the right-of-way along State Road A1A because that is the only alternative, according to Kevin Schanen, vice president of Kimley-Horn and Associates.

Residents listen to Town Manager Tom Bradford speak about undergrounding utilities in March 2016.

More on the utilities undergrounding project

In their letter, the presidents contend that putting the boxes in the right-of-way creates the risk of a vehicle striking one of the boxes, which would “no doubt result in a loss of life.”

Richard Hunegs, president of the 3360 Condominium and one of the signers, said most South End residents don’t want to pay for an undergrounding project they view as unnecessary and undesirable.

“We are concerned about the cost of it,” he said. “We bear an unfair share of the burden of the cost. In addition, the utility boxes are going deface the property. We really don’t consider that a safe alternative to what we already have, which has been proven to be safe.”

The letter arrived just days before the council, at meeting on Tuesday, could decide whether to launch the first phase of the estimated nine-year project. Phase one includes the South and upper North ends.

The form letter was from 14 condominium buildings, out of about 40 residential buildings in the South End. Of the 14 buildings listed, 11 bore the signatures of condo presidents. In the other three cases, the letters weren’t signed.

A separate cover letter from the “Concerned Presidents of Condominiums in the Southern part of Palm Beach” said the presidents had met with their respective boards before voicing an objection on behalf of their respective associations.

“We appreciate your respecting the desires of those in the [South End] who wish not to be involved with neither the expense nor the implementation of unsafe and unsightly boxes and destruction of our property which would occur with undergrounding utilities in our area,” the letter reads.

Town Council President Richard Kleid said the presidents weren’t speaking for every unit owner in their respective buildings. “Some of these condos that signed the letter, I know individual people who live there who want undergrounding. I know for a fact not everybody was in favor of the letter,” he said.

The transformers installed in the South End would not be different from those placed in the rest of town, Bradford said.

And the residential buildings in the South End already have underground utility service on their properties. Only the 4.5 miles along State Road A1A and the south side of Ibis Isle have overhead power lines.

The town plans to bury those lines, so the entire South End will have underground utilities.

Schanen said a fully undergrounded power system will not be any more vulnerable to flooding due to a storm surge than the existing power system in the South End.

That is because the residential buildings already have transformers on the ground floors of their properties.


Much of the town’s utilities already are buried. Kleid said there are more than 300 ground-mounted transformers as part of existing undergrounded system, operating without problems. The transformer boxes are situated on concrete pads, 6 inches above the ground to protect from flooding.

“We are asking each condo to grant us the easement rights on their property, quite a distance from the roadway,” Kleid said. “It makes sense to have them more obscure than out on the right-of-way, and it’s safer.”

The town maintains that an underground system will be safer, more reliable and aesthetically superior to overhead lines. According to Deputy Fire-Rescue Darrel Donatto, over the past 10 years, the town has responded to 524 “emergency incidents,” such as fires or electrical arcing from downed wires or conflicts with trees or limbs, that can be directly attributed to overhead electrical utilities. That’s an average of once a week.

Over the same 10 years, he said crews responded to five to 10 incidents involving underground utilities.

According to Finance Director Jane Struder, properties south of Sloan’s Curve will make up 43 percent of the properties being assessed for the undergrounding project but will pay 27 percent of the costs. That is because, under the formula the town uses to develop the assessments, condominium units in general pay less than single-family homes.

The assessments are for 30 years. The average annual assessment is $958 for a single-family home and $356 for a condominium, according to the town website,