Town puts power line burial plan, vote of residents, on hold

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In the face of criticism and debate the Town Commission decided not to move forward with a public vote in March 2015 on whether to bury power lines on Longboat Key.

Instead, the commission by a narrow majority decided to wait until next November at the latest to come up with a more equitable methodology to pay to underground the entirety of Longboat Key.

The commission on Wednesday was set to approve two ballot questions for next March: the first to bury lines on Gulf of Mexico Drive at a cost of less than $19 million, and the second to ask voters to allow the town to issue bonds for up to $5 million to finance any neighborhood that wished to bury its lines and collectively pay the bonds back through a neighborhood assessment.

Over the past few weeks, numerous residents wrote the commission and showed up at the meeting, telling the elected board that the entire island needs to be on the ballot and that it is unfair to ask neighborhoods to pay for Gulf of Mexico Drive yet make them responsible completely for getting their own streets done.

“We urge an island-wide referendum,” said Save Our Village member Pete Rowan.

Rowan added, “Broadway in the village is a main thoroughfare and is used island-wide as is Gulf of Mexico Drive. We reject the argument that people who currently have underground utilities should not be paying for those who do not.”

Rowan suggested that if the entire island’s utilities were underground, the increase in taxable values would eventually pay for the project.

Resident Bobby Banaan correlated the issue with the manner in which beach renourishments are paid, with the Gulf side property owners paying 80 percent and the rest of the island participating.

“As in beach renourishment, we all gladly participate and have been paying for years, and very happy to do that. I feel the same way about undergrounding utilities island-wide,” said Banaan.

Redevelopment Task Force member Tom Aposporos said the Task Force is in favor of island-wide undergrounding not only for improving the appearance of the key, but for creating a safer island in the face of storm events. Aposporos urged two referendums: one asking voters about undergrounding Gulf of Mexico Drive and the other to ask voters if they would approve undergrounding the entire island.

Spanish Main resident Thomas Friewald said it would not be wise to have a patchwork quilt of infrastructure as would happen in a neighborhood by neighborhood approach and he recommended that the entire island be undergrounded along with fiber-optic cable and a new telecommunication infrastructure.

Resident Larry Grossman did not like the idea of two referendum questions and told the board that it should not be broken up into Gulf of Mexico Drive and the rest of the island.

“There should be only one referendum and it should be deferred until it can be reformulated into one referendum,” said Grossman.

Grossman added that the old side streets with wires crossed over wires present a danger and a hazard.


Commission contemplates

After hearing the residents decrying the neighborhood by neighborhood approach and asking repeatedly for an island-wide ballot question, the commission was faced with the option of either moving forward with what was on the table, moving forward with asking voters if they wanted to go underground Gulf of Mexico Drive and come back at a later date with an island-wide ballot question, or delay the matter in its entirety until the commission gains more clarity on how it wished to proceed.

The commissioners did not agree with one another on which option they wanted. Village resident and District 5 Commissioner Pat Zunz said she clearly wants one referendum for the entire island.

Commissioner Terry Gans said he was “A simple person and has to simplify things.”

Gans then told a parable or what could best be called a fable that decried the use of tax dollars unjustly and then suggested that the town not continue with the neighborhood question, but should move forward with asking residents if they wished to underground Gulf of Mexico Drive, which was the original intent of the commission since it undertook the issue last spring.

Commissioner Phill Younger also said that he did not want to hold up the process of moving forward with a vote on Gulf of Mexico Drive.

“I feel we need to go ahead with this referendum for Gulf of Mexico Drive and get more information for doing the side streets. Provided Gulf of Mexico Drive is approved, we can then put the side streets up for a vote. If GMD is not approved, frankly nothing is going to be approved,” said Younger.

Mayor Jim Brown suggested that the commission move forward with Gulf of Mexico Drive but ask the consultant about the both the cost and any additional difficulties in undergrounding the neighborhoods.


All or nothing?

Brown then said he lives in a neighborhood that does not have buried utilities and added that he does not want somebody who has already paid to have their lines undergrounded, such as in Bay Isles or Islandside, to pay for someone who does not.

Vice Mayor Jack Duncan agreed and said he did not believe the second question had been thoroughly vetted.

“I think there is a lot more work to be done. I have lived in the north end and feel your pain on this one. I believe the neighborhood lines are deplorable. There needs to be something done there,” said Duncan.

Duncan added that, “You have my word that if we move forward with GMD and can come up with a thorough and fair means to fund the neighborhood projects, we will come back to you. You have my word. I know you think we will do GMD and never get your neighborhood done, but from the bottom of my heart, that is not what is going to happen. We are looking at the most fair way to fund this project and get it done for all of the island, but we should do GMD as a first step.”

Zunz said she believed she was here to represent the whole island and that the right approach was to underground the whole island.

Commissioner Lynn Larson then suggested that two votes would make sense, one in March where undergrounding GMD would be on the ballot, and then undergrounding the rest of the key could be asked in a May referendum.


A half loaf is better than no loaf

Younger agreed, “If we move forward with GMD and the vote is yes, that is a positive step to move forward on the rest of the island. There is still the possibility people could vote to underground GMD and not the side streets. A half of a loaf is better than no loaf. I think we should go forward with this referendum (on GMD) and then go forward as fast as we can with the other question. We will then have a barometer in March.”

Then Duncan put the brakes on the idea of moving forward in the short term with a referendum, “I think it is time to step back and take a little more time to think exactly what we want to do.”

Larson was visibly upset, “I think this is getting killed. I was the one who banged and banged and banged for this and I can see it going down in flames. We are all ready for a March vote, we will get to November next year and it will be a dead issue.

Gans agreed that they were ready to move forward with the Gulf of Mexico Drive question.

“I think when it comes to GMD, the cart and the horse are pretty reasonably aligned; I do not know what more we’re going to learn by November. I do not want to lose that part of the project and we can look at the rest down the road. If you want all or nothing, you will end up with nothing,” said Gans.

Zunz said she did not agree and that she was hearing a lot of people say that if they are asked to vote for GMD and not the entire island, they will not support the measure.

Larson shot back that she hears, “One neighborhood saying ‘all or nothing’ I do not hear the entire town saying to wait. I think we need to not be held hostage with the ‘all or nothing.’ If you hold it hostage, it will kill it. If we wait until November and say ‘all or nothing,’ it is dead.”


‘It will not kill it…’

Brown said there was some truth to everyone’s argument and added that he did not think the commission would be killing everything if they waited until November.

Duncan also said it would allow time for the town to come up with an equitable way to ask voters to pay for an island-wide project.

“I do not believe we are putting a nail in any coffin at all. This is about getting it right for the whole town,” said Duncan.

Duncan then made a motion to postpone both referendums until no later than November 2015.

Both Gans and Larson said they were not in favor of waiting until November 2015 and that the town was ready to vote on undergrounding Gulf of Mexico Drive.

Gans made a final appeal and said, “I accept the benefit of doing Gulf of Mexico Drive for the entire island. I am concerned about piling numbers upon numbers on the voters and putting a huge figure in front of them all at once. Get GMD done, and then go from there.”

The commission then voted 4-2 to not move forward with any referendum question for March 2015, and to postpone asking voters about undergrounding any utilities until November 2015 at the latest.

Commissioners Larson and Gans voted against postponing the measure.

Town Manager Dave Bullock said he would bring back neighborhood financing options and craft an ordinance to underground the neighborhoods and bring it back most likely in February 2015 for the commission to undertake its consideration once again on the issue.

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