Friday was a day of celebration, 14 years in the making.
That’s how long it took town-wide utility undergrounding to evolve from an idea, first explored by then-Mayor Lesly Smith and the Town Council , into something as tangible as shovels biting into dirt.
Town officials donned hard hats, gripped shovels and posed for pictures at two groundbreaking events at Phipps Ocean Park and on Onondaga Avenue.
“We think it will be transformative for the town of Palm Beach,” Town Manager Tom Bradford told a group of about 25 people at Phipps.
At Onondaga, he told a similar-size crowd the town will do all it can to minimize the anguish expected when workers spend the next 18 to 20 months digging or boring into the ground to bury all overhead power, cable television and telephone lines in two neighborhoods.
The town says buried utilities will be safer, aesthetically superior and more reliable than the overhead system, which have led to frequent power outages in the Midtown and North End areas where tree limbs conflict with the power lines.
The project is envisioned in eight phases over roughly nine years at a cost of around $90 million. This summer marks the beginning of Phase One, being done for $10.4 million in the North End, from Onondaga Avenue to the Palm Beach Inlet, and in the South End, from Sloan’s Curve to the south town limit.
Not everyone was celebrating. A lone protester, Linda Essig, carried a sign accusing the town of “taxation without representation” because of how the council chose to finance the project. In a March 2016 referendum, voters narrowly approved up to $90 million in bonds to be repaid by property owners using annual assessments over 30 years. Essig said it’s unfair that property owners couldn’t vote in the referendum if they weren’t also registered town voters.
Echoing the sentiment of many other South End residents, Essig said she has no problem with the utility poles and overhead lines in her part of town, where power outages haven’t been a big issue.
For Susan Gary, an Onondaga Avenue resident and member of the town’s Underground Utilities Task Force, Friday’s groundbreaking was a long-awaited cause for celebration.
Gary said many residents want the project, especially in the North End, where the power failures are a nuisance. She noted that, besides the referendum passing, the council in October 2014 voted 5-0 in favor of undergrounding.
“You’re always going to have some folks who don’t agree,” Gary said. “What can you do? This project got voted on.”
By William Kelly – Daily News Staff Writer
Saturday, August 05, 2017