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Amid protests, Commission postpones undergrounding utilities

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

When the Longboat Key Town Commission convened last week to approve the final resolution that would allow the neighborhood utility undergrounding project to move forward, the opposition showed up with an attorney.

Voters last March approved allowing the town to bond up to $23.85 million to bury utilities and add fiber optic cable with the Key’s neighborhoods and side streets.

After a four-hour discussion l;ast week in which the attorney and numerous property owners fought the method the town planned to use to fund the project, the commission instructed the town manager to reevaluate several aspects of the funding formula.

In short, the decision puts the neighborhood undergrounding on hold at least until next October when Town Manager Dave Bullock’s analysis will be considered.

The meeting opened with Bayport residents saying that the assessment formula, which is how the town is calculating what to charge each property owner, is supposed to be predicated on providing a clear benefit to the property and to be apportioned in a reasonable manner. The Bayport residents said the town’s method fails on both counts.

The foundation for their argument is that Bayport is already undergrounded and yet they are classified in the top payment tier because of the proximity of an overhead power line that is within 55 feet of their overall property.

“I want to address the special benefit that we are supposedly receiving,” said Libby Wolf, “For those of us in Bayport we can find no special benefit.”

Bayport resident Sharon Bird said she was expecting that since Bayport is already undergrounded, it would be assessed at the lower tier of 18.5% of the overall cost, but instead it went to the highest tier.

“It is unfair that we are being charged at Bayport just because we have Kingfisher Lane to the north of the property,” said Chris Lake.

Attorney Robert Lincoln argued on behalf of a Club Longboat resident. He raised some issues that Commissioner Jack Daly, who also lives at Club Longboat, had previously discussed with the Commission.

Lincoln said that the application of the assessment methodology was “arbitrary and unfair,” and “there’s no reason you have to do this today and move forward; you need to fix these problems with the methodologies involved.”

Lincoln told Longboat Key News that Club Longboat would be paying about $350,000 toward the project simply because an above ground line runs to a maintenance building and that triggered the entire condominium property to the higher payment tier. He added that the condominium association had determined it would cost only $25,000 to bury that line but the town picked an “arbitrary” date of last May 9 as a cutoff for any changes to the property to be considered. Consequently, said Lincoln, Club Longboat will instead have to pay about $350,000 more toward the undergrounding project.

Lincoln argued that the town’s assessment methodology does not have to be “perfect or even fair, but you have to reasonably assert that someone will receive the stated benefit. The undergrounding has to not only reasonably benefit the property, but the way the method is apportioned has to relate to that benefit.”

When asked if his client at Club Longboat does not wish to see the project go forward, Lincoln said, “If the town fixes the situations that are most arbitrary and most legally egregious it might resolve the issue.”

Lincoln said that he hopes “there is a lot of slack in the budget” and added that, “I am concerned that if the town bids it out at the $25 million amount that’s what the bids will come in at because everybody knows they are building a Cadillac project.”

Lincoln also said that there could be other costs the town hasn’t considered such as the true costs of easements in older subdivisions and condominiums and the difficulty in securing those easements.

“It doesn’t look like they have done their homework on this project,” said Lincoln.

A resident from Longboat Harbour complained at the meeting that it is unfair that the development is being assessed as one single address on Gulf of Mexico Drive but not as a neighborhood “just because the developer named the streets.”

Beachcomber resident Joseph McElmeel said the assessment was essentially a hidden tax and preferential to a group of owners, “I urge you to recognize how severely flawed this methodology is; you can remedy this.”

 

Commission discussion

The Commission discussion began with Commissioner Phill Younger asking the town undergrounding consultant if the Gulf of Mexico Drive and neighborhood undergrounding projects are combined, if there would be $5 million saved. It was explained later that there would be a savings.

Commissioner Ed Zunz said he hoped the Commission would step back and reevaluate exactly what it wanted to do and suggested that the town use a different approach to pay for the undergrounding.

Vice Mayor Terry Gans accused Zunz of offering “an army of words in search of a thought.”

Gans added that “A lot of things were thrown against the wall in hopes that some of them would stick.”

Gans then said that people might be using the term “flawed” to correlate with “imperfect.”

“At the end of the day, if we decide this is the best we can come up with, it could be the judgment that its for the good of the overall community,” said Gans.

Commissioner Irwin Pastor said that he believed that the Commission all agreed that they wanted the neighborhood undergrounding done and that after hearing the concerns he believed that Town staff and Town Manager would do their best effort to address the concerns.

Mayor Jack Duncan said, “The point is we were talking about this from the get-go and to insinuate that these numbers came out of nowhere is just unreal. All of these things were discussed and vetted and considered.”

Bullock said the commission did have some time to consider these issues to stay on schedule and before it would start defraying some of the savings in doing the projects in tandem.

That is when Pastor suggested that Bullock come back to the Commission with options “to solve the dilemma we’re in.”

Younger said he had a different perspective.

“I think the intention of the Commission was noble and good, but somewhere along the line we lost track of what was going to happen. It is tantamount to having two foxes and a chicken decide what’s for dinner. We have lost the sense of the fairness of what we were doing. I think this funding study is deeply flawed and needs to be redone. It’s not right for Club Longboat; it’s not right for anybody,” said Younger.

Gans said that what he heard as the biggest stumbling block is to see how the 55-foot rule comes into play. The current methodology says that if a parcel is within 55-feet of an existing overhead powerline, it will be assessed at the higher rate.

“I would be in favor of looking at some of the things we have heard today. I am not in favor of reopening the whole vote,” said Gans.

Bullock told the commissioners that they cannot change the amount properties are assessed without giving public notice. He said that you can make modifications but that assessments cannot go up and if they are reduced, additional revenues would have to be found.

There was reference to the idea of using town franchise fees that are collected by Florida Power and Light to offset any lost revenue if the town changes how the rules are applied for some of the parties who say they are aggrieved.

The Commission ended the meeting by making a motion to reconsider the funding methodology and some of its components to an Oct. 4 meeting.

The commission also in the form of a motion, director Bullock to examine five specific items:

• Analyze the 55-foot rule to review its impact on individual taxable units within parcels. Currently multi-unit properties are evaluated as a parcel and Bullock will evaluate if it is reasonable to separate out units within parcels.

• Provide recommendations regarding self-funding and properties contracting to bury their own lines and when that cut off date might occur.

• Advise on possible project savings as well as other non-ad valorem revenue that could be used if changes reduce what some property owners pay. Bullock told Longboat Key News that the FPL franchise fee could be used, but it is currently in the budget as general revenue.

• Review any properties where power lines are not feeding the property such as Bayport and Longboat Harbour.

• Provide definitive costs if the Gulf of Mexico Drive and neighborhood projects are done together versus apart.

 

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6 Responses for “Amid protests, Commission postpones undergrounding utilities”

  1. Steve says:

    I think we could bury all of the crosswalk signage, poles and lights for under $50,000 and achieve an equal or greater GMD aesthetic improvement as burying the utility lines.

  2. Jack Williams says:

    @ Ghostwriter. I can tell you what lack of progress is more succintly. Once upon a time, the Colony was a first rate tennis resort. Sadly, it is now a pile of dung that needs to raized. Failure to maintain and improve is how they got to that point. The legal infighting prevented a quick and efficient solution. In the end everyone loses except the lawyers. Let us learn from mistakes.

  3. Jack Williams says:

    @ Mr. Gardner. The point is that nothing ever gets accomplished , even though the majority has voted the Town stalls because of an attorney who represents a small handfuls of dissenters. Why must everything get mired in legal nonsense. The Colony is another prime example. No motive here just a straight observation

  4. ghostrider says:

    Mr Williams
    Define “progress for this island.”

    You are now being forced to replenish your beaches or you lose your island and that assessment is a formidable one. Not everyone has deep pockets. Having the latest , the newest and ….the fastest technology, that people over sixty have no DAILY need for, is the issue.

    If you raise taxes 10% a year, it will take seven and half years for your taxes to double. That’s what’s coming.

  5. Jim Gardner says:

    I do not know Mr. Williams and therefore can not comment on his motives. Your opinion piece places far too much emphasis on the attorney’s role in the discussion. The apportionment methodology is obviously flawed.

  6. Jack Williams says:

    This commissions needs to get a backbone bone and not cower to every attorney that creates an obstacle for progress of this island. There will forever be lawyers and there will forever be residents who cannot agree on anything. The people have spoken and approved the underground. Now it’s time for the elected officials to move forward and let the chips fall where they may

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