Residents pan notion of 45-foot tall streetlights but town leaders say heights are maximum estimates, studies are coming and no decisions have been made.
Streetlights, perhaps the most visible component of a plan to make power and communications cables disappear on Longboat Key, have prompted recent emails and phone calls to Town Hall over worries some could stand as high as a four-story building.
Dozens of messages were sent to commissioners and town staffers in the last week or so, almost uniformly expressing frustration that a new batch of streetlights, which would also house upgraded cellular-service equipment, would stand 45 feet tall along Gulf of Mexico Drive and 35 feet tall in neighborhoods, higher than the current mix of poles and other lights in town. People also objected to the notion of the tallest poles being constructed of concrete, 16 inches across at the base, and asked the town to “avoid the industrialization of our visual landscape.’’
On Monday, at a regularly scheduled Town Commission meeting, Town Manager Tom Harmer said those numbers, discussed at a town workshop in February and criticized then by commissioners, were maximum figures estimated without the benefit of a scientific radio-frequency study to determine requirements to make the cell network operate well.
The utility project’s initial phase of digging and electrical cable burial is expected to start this spring with the overall project estimated to take more than three years to complete.
A study of just how tall those light poles will need to be in neighborhoods and on GMD will be completed soon. Then discussions about final height, number of lights, construction materials and appearance can be made, Harmer said.
“There is a concern about aesthetics and pole height,” he said. “It may not be clear to those residents that the commission is still in the phase of asking questions of staff and the consultants to understand what options there are. At the last meeting, (a workshop on Feb. 19) the staff presented an option on concrete poles and the commission had a lot of questions and asked the staff to come back with other alternatives.
“That next discussion will continue at their March 19 workshop.”
At the heart of the issue is the town’s desire to improve chronically poor cellphone service on the island without building a conventional cell-phone tower, something the town has made clear through the years it does not want.
As part of the $46 million plan to bury overhead utility cables and related equipment, the town years ago moved forward with a plan that replaces hundreds of streetlights with new models wired with equipment and linked to the fiber network to enhance cell phone service and speed data rates.
The town must install streetlights because all of the conventional poles they are bolted to now will be gone. State lighting requirements on GMD also will need to be adhered to.
“What I think has people really excited is this monster pole concept,” Mayor George Spoll said.
The first part of the project will involve burying electrical cables and related equipment underground.
The second is to install a fiber optic backbone, which allows for smart technology for future connectivity and growth. The last part of the project, slated for completion in 2022, is the installation of the street lights.
Aesthetics are on the mind of most of the people who wrote to commissioners, largely questioning the logic of taller streetlights as a part of an overall project to rid the island of overhead wires, poles and other components. Safety and durability in storms were other factors in proceeding with the underground utilities project.
“Why can’t we have the lovely 15-foot poles that are on St. Armands, or something similar?’’ wrote one resident. “Longboat’s lovely architecture deserves to have outdoor accoutrements that enhance our communities.’’
Spoll said the size of the streetlight poles will largely be driven by the radio-frequency study.
“It’s either going to be a lot of poles at a moderate height or fewer poles as you go up somewhat,” he said. “And that’s a decision that we need to stand firm on. That cell service has to be improved. We still have people dropping calls as we get to the northern part of the island.”
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