Just like that, the Longboat Key Town Commission flipped the switch.
A month ago, five out of seven commissioners repeatedly rejected further discussion on a proposal to bury Florida Power & Light Co. power poles along Gulf of Mexico Drive at a cost of approximately $10 million.
But at the commission’s regular meeting Monday night at Town Hall, commissioners unanimously agreed to allow town staff to spend up to $50,000 on a study to help solidify costs involved with burying power poles and lines, along with cable and telephone lines.
It will take three to five months to select a consultant and have the study completed for review. The study will provide information about all of the challenges and conceptual costs with an underground utility project along Gulf of Mexico Drive.
Once the commission has a grasp on the costs involved, the plan calls for town staff to prepare a referendum question for the town’s voters in March.
“Let’s put it to the voters for them to decide,” said Mayor Jim Brown. “We’ll prepare the facts and they get to make the decision.”
The cost to bury both power lines and other utilities along Gulf of Mexico Drive is estimated at anywhere from $10 million to $20 million.
To pay off the cost, the town could either assess an ad valorem tax to pay off the debt over time or a non-ad valorem debt that homeowners themselves would agree to pay after two-thirds of the property owners agree to the debt through assessment districts.
Former Vice Mayor David Brenner urged the commission to look past the overall cost of the power poles alone.
“The increase is modest when you take into account everything else the town is paying for or has plans to pay back,” Brenner said. “Now is the time to focus on this important issue. It’s all about the future of Longboat Key.”
Only the study will reveal the potential costs and Town Manager Dave Bullock is recommending the town use its commission contingency fund in the next two fiscal years to pay for the study.
“We owe it to the citizens to give the full amount of all of the costs associated with such a project,” said Commissioner Phill Younger.
Staff will also begin work on a new ordinance for future review that would mandate an undergrounding policy.
Besides the aesthetic value, staff said an advantage to such a project includes increased reliability for the island’s power grid. A disadvantage includes taking longer to fix power issues after severe weather.
Town staff proposed the concept in May because FPL is ramping up a hardening project this summer that will install larger, wider 41-foot poles (current poles are 39 feet) along the island’s thoroughfare that will be able to withstand hurricane-force winds.
Sarasota County FPL External Affairs Manager Rae Dowling said plans to strengthen the above-ground power grid on the Key was the company’s preference and funds for the project are in place now.
“We feel a duty and an obligation to provide a hardened system,” Dowling said Monday night. “To delay that is not something we would prefer to do.”
Several commissioners took issue with Dowling’s statements.
“I don’t appreciate being threatened,” said Commissioner Lynn Larson.
Dowling informed Bullock in an email Tuesday FPL is willing to hold off on the hardening project indefinitely.
“Once a decision is made with the voters and depending on the vote, we will either not pursue the hardening or reincorporate the project into the plans as they exist at that time,” Dowling wrote.
Vice Mayor Jack Duncan was pleased with the response.
“The commission is working hard to make the right decision, both from an aesthetic standpoint and a cost standpoint,” Duncan said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Click here to view a breakdown of power line burial costs.
Contact Kurt Schultheis at email@example.com