Longboat commissioners agree with neighborhood on underground-utility sticker shock

The Bayport Beach & Tennis Club's exception will likely lead to an increase for other properties islandwide

Article Courtesy of Your Observer

By Bret Hauff

Published November 24, 2017

Barbara Rowe didn’t think her underground-utilities assessment was fair.

The Bayport Beach & Tennis Club resident said she and her husband derived no benefit from any overhead wires in her neighborhood — there aren’t any.

She’d already been assessed $2,400 for the Gulf of Mexico Drive project to bury utility cables. The only overhead wires near her condominium at 520 Bayport Way, she said, are on Kingfisher Lane, a private drive obscured by trees behind her home.

Let's take a step back.

Longboat Key residents approved two referendums in the past two years allowing the town to seek bonds to remove all overhead wires on the island and bury them in the dirt. This process became colloquially known as “undergrounding.”

But why?

Supporters argued that replacing overhead wires with underground utilities would decrease the costs of storm restoration and tree trimming, increase reliability, reduce power system damage in the event of severe weather and improve aesthetics and property values.

Opponents argued that the cost of this project, $42.1 million islandwide, would be four to five times more expensive than Florida Power & Light’s plan to replace Gulf of Mexico Drive poles with sturdier ones, that repairing underground wires would be five to 10 times more costly, problems with the system would be harder to locate and in the event of flooding, all water would have to recede before repairs could be made.

The first of these votes in November 2015 approved the town’s use of no more than $25.25 million in taxpayer money for undergrounding all utilities on GMD. This ballot question passed 62.6% to 37.4%.

Then, in March 2016, voters approved a neighborhood undergrounding project by a difference of 59.98% to 40.02%, allowing the town to issue bonds of no more than $23.85 million for the project.

If all goes according to plan, the town anticipates all utilities across the island will be buried by July 2021.

But those wires are within 55 feet of her property, costing her and her husband, by the town’s methodology, an additional $3,584.98 over the 30-year repayment schedule of the project, Rowe said to town commissioners at their Nov. 16 workshop meeting.

“Had we known that our already-undergrounded property could be assessed over $3,500, we would have never approved the referendum for this [neighborhood] project,” Rowe told commissioners.

Rowe was one of many Bayport Beach & Tennis Club residents who sought a neighborhood review from the town commission for the northernmost condominium associations. Those two plots were assessed thousands of dollars more than the other three lots because of their 55-foot abutment to Kingfisher Lane.

Many residents who appeared before the Commission said this was unfair. And after analyzing the situation at the Bayport Beach & Tennis Club and finding it unique on the island, Town Manager Dave Bullock and his team of consultants agreed.

“There is adequate justification to make an exception in this case, and I am very very cautious about making exceptions,” Bullock said. “But I think in this case, after looking at it in some detail, if the commission would choose to do that [give special exception to Bayport Beach & Tennis Club], there is some justification for it.”

The Commission concurred.

But this decision doesn’t mean the neighborhood project to bury utility cables will cost any less. The money lost from Bayport Beach & Tennis Club has to come from somewhere.

Bullock’s team of consultants took this into consideration and found that most properties on the island would see an approximate 1% increase in assessments from previous estimates.

Making up the difference

To compensate for the Bayport Beach & Tennis Club's assessment exception, other assessments islandwide will likely rise.

“We should be looking at this from the point of view of the facts and not the impact of the finances of other,” said District 2 Commissioner George Spoll. “I think factually, it would be fair to remove them from this special category.”

But as Mayor Terry Gans warned when the commission debated this exception for the first time at its Nov. 6 regular meeting, this special case could be a slippery slope.

Longboat Harbour condominium residents have sent at least 13 emails to the Town Commission requesting an exception for underground fiber installation, as of Monday morning.

Owners argue that they already paid for underground fiber when they bought their condominiums.

Maureen Mastroieni, a resident at 4410 Exeter Drive, wrote commissioners about an “apparent error” in neighborhood undergrounding assessments. The private drives in Longboat Harbour — Exeter Drive, Falmouth Drive and Chatham Drive — are nothing more than shared driveways and not streets with underground wire as they have been assessed, Mastroieni said.

“We were under the impression that the town would not be coming onto our property and installing fiber,” Mastroieni said in an interview. “Why are we being charged for fiber when we’re not getting fiber?”