BELLEAIR BEACH – Over a year ago, Belleair Beach residents voted “yes” by a comfortable margin, 56 percent, on a referendum issue that directed council members to develop a plan and financing to underground all public utilities throughout the city.
The vote was non-binding, but then Mayor Kathy Mortensen had said a positive outcome would signal the residents “want us to take the time and resources to look at it.”
Since then, little has happened on the undergrounding issue, but costs have continued to rise to the point that doing the entire city may not be financially feasible.
Just the undergrounding of Gulf Boulevard within the city limits is now estimated to top $9 million. But funds are available from the county to help with that project or other Boulevard beautification efforts the city may want to undertake.
Mayor Rob Baldwin said at the May 6 City Council meeting that the time had come to take a look at the Gulf Boulevard undergrounding/beautification issue “to try and narrow the options and take advantage of the currently available funds since future funds are not guaranteed.”
The funding is part of a massive Gulf Boulevard beautification project, which allocates county Penny for Pinellas money to each beach community for that purpose. Nearly $300,000 is available now for use by Belleair Beach and neighboring Belleair Shore, with more money becoming available each year until a total of $2.9 million is reached in 2019.
“These funds are sitting aside for use if we come forward with projects,” Baldwin said.
Since the cost of undergrounding utilities on Gulf Boulevard is far in excess of the county funding that will be available, Baldwin recommended looking at other more affordable beautification projects as well.
Council members decided to set up a committee composed equally of residents and council members to look at the undergrounding and beautification projects separately. The committee will explore the issues and make project and funding recommendations.
“We don’t want to lose the opportunity (to beautify Gulf Boulevard) if funds are available,” said Vice Mayor Leslie Notaro, in endorsing the committee formation.
Some council members were less than enthusiastic about the presumed benefits of utility undergrounding. They had attended a recent Barrier Islands Governmental Council committee meeting where the mayor of Sanibel Island had spoken of the difficulty in restoring undergrounded utilities following Hurricane Charley in 2004.
“It took a lot longer for Sanibel to get back their undergrounded utilities than those above ground,” Baldwin related.
Council Member David Dumville said he did not see utility undergrounding “as a wonderful thing to make the city stand out.”
Other Gulf Boulevard beautification projects suggested by Baldwin included imprinted crosswalks and pedestrian “safe haven” islands. Other ideas were ADA improvements along the Boulevard, and installing a mast arm to clear wires from the city’s main intersection at Causeway Boulevard.
Beautifying Gulf Boulevard with palm trees and other landscaping to camouflage the city’s above ground utilities was suggested by Council Member John Pietrowski.
Council members will recommend residents to serve on the committee looking into the undergrounding and beautification issues. Baldwin, Notaro and Council Member Mitch Kratch will represent council.
Council Member Jeril Cohen said residents should be chosen “that know a little about the subject.”