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Longboat streetlight heights take center stage

Commissioners seek more data on streetlight height before making their final call.

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  • | 3:00 p.m. March 27, 2019
GMD and Bay Isles Parkway (41 feet)
GMD and Bay Isles Parkway (41 feet)
  • Longboat Key
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Frank Sinatra tossed his coat over his shoulder and crooned under one.

Gene Kelly grabbed an umbrella in the rain and danced around one.

The Exorcist cast a menacing silhouette alongside one.

Still, few streetlights have taken more of a starring role in public discourse than Longboat Key’s in recent weeks.

The years of planning and negotiation involved in the town’s project to bury power and utility cables and boost cellular and wireless service have funneled this year into discussions of one overriding dimension: how high streetlights and their poles will be when the project is completed, possibly by 2022.

Why? Because the size of the poles, which also will support miniature cell antennas and other wireless communications gear, are integral to how the whole 21st century infrastructure package will work and look in lieu of a conventional cell tower, which the town has repeatedly said it does not want.

Why now? Because the 70-day design of the wireless network can’t begin until town leaders agree on the height of poles along Gulf of Mexico Drive and in the neighborhoods. The spacing of poles is dependent on height, and the design of the fiber-optic network to connect everything is dependent on the location of each pole.

Last week, Isaac Brownman, the town’s Public Works director, brought to commissioners a staff recommendation for 35-foot poles on Gulf of Mexico Drive and 25-foot poles for the neighborhoods.

The idea was to hold firm on the project’s primary goals of safety, reliability and aesthetics, he said, while maintaining a balance of competing considerations.

“Just like any three-legged stool, you can’t pull one of the legs away and expect the stool to stand,” Brownman said. “If you focus solely on aesthetics and not the other two, the stool won’t stand. You focus only on reliability, you’ll have 65-foot poles.”

Adding to the mix is a planned radio frequency study of the island, which will inform the fiber-optic network’s design. Waterleaf International, a telecommunications engineering company contracted with the town, will perform that study soon.

“This is an enormously complicated project,” Commissioner Ken Schneier said.

Complicated in a technical sense and complicated in a public-reaction sense. A flurry of emails, calls and complaints from Longboat Key residents followed an early maximum-height estimate that hit 45 feet. Most of the people who spoke up said the town was disregarding one of those goals: aesthetics.

Some people even questioned the need to build out a fiber-optic network at all, but Town Manager Tom Harmer said the smart move for the town is to build its own network of underground cables and mini-cell components now, under the town’s control. Otherwise, individual companies could come in and build their own, parallel, networks largely at will.

Ultimately, town commissioners sought a more guarded approach, conceding that request might slow down the progress a bit. Instead of proceeding solely with the staff recommendation, they asked Waterleaf to also factor in pole heights of 25 feet for GMD and 15 feet for the neighborhoods.

With those additional variables, town commissioners hope to gain the ability to compare additional data (including costs) before locking in a choice, possibly in a month, and starting the clock on the 10-week network design process.

“It seems indefensible if we don’t do both,” Mayor George Spoll said.

Brownman said while the focus has largely been on height, there’s another part of aesthetics that isn’t so obvious.

“There will not be wires after this project,” he said. “There’s going to be a height that’s equal to or less than what’s there today. There will be new material. There’s going to be a diameter that meets more of the commissioners’ considerations. Everything about it, on average, will be better than it is today.”

At Centre Shops (46 feet)
At Centre Shops (46 feet)

A census of poles across town found a range of heights between 32 feet and 46 feet on Gulf of Mexico Drive, averaging 38 feet. In the neighborhoods, poles range from 26 feet to 41 feet, with an average of 33.9 feet. Of the town’s 281 poles on GMD, about 160 carry lights street lights or floodlights.

Because all those poles and all those lights will come down as part of the underground project, and new lights installed on some of the new poles, new lighting standards from Florida Department of Transportation came into play.

The town had two options:

n Light the entire length of GMD (a state-regulated highway) to a new, brighter, standard, which was rejected; or

n  Limit those lights to intersections with traffic lights, signalized crosswalks and four or five other areas near churches and shopping zones.

“We don’t want to have GMD lit to a standard that would be offensive to the community,” Brownman said, describing the result as a “runway.”

The decorative light poles that carry street name signs will remain, Brownman said. Specifically, residents of Buttonwood Harbour asked theirs be retained as a landmark to find their neighborhood at night.

Brownman said when all is said and done, there will likely be fewer poles of all sorts across the island and some of them would serve no other purpose than to support improved cell and wireless service.

“I know a lot of the discussion is that we’re undergrounding so much, and this is going to be the one thing left that you can see,” he said. “Perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder.”


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