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In debate over wires, it's looks vs. costs

By LEON M. TUCKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


DUNEDIN -- Over four months, Elaine Swinehart has paid nearly $30,000 to have an extra bedroom and bathroom added to her Nicholas Drive home.

The Dunedin woman is among a dozen homeowners and five business owners in the city who recently have hired construction companies to renovate their properties at individual costs exceeding $20,000.

But had they arranged for the work to be done under an ordinance proposed by city officials, their construction bills could have increased by as much as 15 percent.

The ordinance would require residents and business owners planning to spend at least $20,000 to improve their properties to bury wires and cables at their expense. It would cap the cost at 15 percent of the cost of the renovation.

The idea was scheduled for a commission vote two weeks ago, but the mayor and city commissioners postponed it until their April 5 meeting, citing concerns about how residents and business owners will react to having to pay for the work.

"I don't think it's going to affect a lot of people," said Kevin Campbell, community services director for Dunedin. "But I believe that everyone who it will affect will complain because it's an added cost."

But not Swinehart.

"I think it would make the neighborhood look more aesthetically pleasing and in doing that it would help the property value," she said. "But some people might not be able to pay an immediate bill like that."

Dunedin began burying wires on city land in 1995 to eliminate poles and prevent falling power lines during heavy storms. That year, the city spent $15,000 to bury utilities along Main Street, between Milwaukee Avenue and Highland Street.

Since then, the city has spent $150,000 burying lines and is planning more.

Meanwhile, there is debate between government and utility officials over who should be financially responsible for burying utility lines and the rate at which the work is done.

"There seems to be more requests like this and we're doing the best we can to study this and work with the other cities to keep the costs as minimal as we can," said Nancy Loehr, regional manager for Florida Power. "And if this is what our customers want, we will do the best we can to make this happen."

Loehr also said Florida Power would try forming a partnership with cities and other utility companies if interest in placing utilities underground is widespread. She added, however, that the company would find it difficult to support making it mandatory forresidents to pay for the work unless it was made law through a referendum.

In Pinellas County, North Redington Beach passed an ordinance in 1985 that requires residents and business owners to move utilities underground when construction or renovations reach $15,000.

St. Petersburg, Oldsmar, Indian Rocks Beach and Treasure Island all have similar ordinances.

Largo Mayor Bob Jackson said the issue hasn't come up there lately. But he expects it to surface soon.

"I think it's a desirable thing, but at private citizens' expense, on the surface, seems like a haphazard way of putting utilities underground," he said. "A major concern is that it would discourage people from improving their property if they had to incur an extra expense."

And officials say such work can cost up to $1,200 and more for some commercial customers.

"Commercial customers will hire an electrician to do the work," said Wally Guthrie, Florida Power regional engineering supervisor.

"If they've got expensive landscaping or a parking lot to go through, that could get really expensive -- but in the end it looks great."

That is, so long as neighboring properties do the same thing.

"Keep in mind that over 20 years we'll get all of them," said Dunedin City Attorney John Hubbard, who was responsible for suggesting the ordinance. "Eventually, in increments, we will get them all underground."

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