BELLEAIR BEACH – The long-sought goal of undergrounding utilities in the city’s Bellevue Estates Island neighborhood is moving toward reality. Steps were taken at the Feb. 5 City Council meeting to enable the city to, in City Attorney Paul Marino’s words, “proceed to the next level.”

After hearing a presentation on the undergrounding assessment methodology by attorney Chris Roe of the Bryant Miller Olive law firm, the council narrowly passed a resolution on the matter. The initial assessment resolution officially begins the process of creating the assessment area and imposing assessments on the property owners.

Interim City Manager Lynn Rives described the resolution as “the initial step forward in the total undergrounding process.”

Mayor Leslie Notaro called passage of the resolution “a preliminary step to get this in motion.”

Roe spoke of the progress made so far in the undergrounding effort. The required number of residents in the neighborhood have signed petitions in favor, with 85 owners voting yes, 20 opposed and 10 not responding. He said the petition signatures have been verified by the supervisor of elections.

In his presentation, Roe said undergrounding of utilities offers safety, reliability and aesthetic benefits, which lead to increased property values.

“These are accepted benefits,” Roe said, answering a challenge from council member Rob Baldwin, who had said residents in flood prone areas experience longer power outages because the lines are under water during flood events and damaged wires cannot be located easily.

Passage of the undergrounding resolution gives the city the authority to proceed to the steps needed to complete the process. They are, Rives said, to send out notices of a public hearing to the residents involved, then hold the hearing, which is scheduled for the next council meeting on March 5. The notices will include an estimate of the assessment amount, which is $11,078 per residence.

Following the hearing, steps will be taken to determine the final assessment costs and authorize the loan. The estimated total cost of the project is $1.6 million.

In mid-July, there will be a judicial validation, where the city is in effect, suing itself, said Roe.

This process protects the city from lawsuits. A suit could hold up the process for months, Roe said, while the judicial validation process can be wrapped up quickly.

In August through September, the city will begin receiving funds from the property owners who wish to pay their assessment in one payment up front. Preliminary indications are that about half of the owners expressed an interest in prepaying, Roe said. This avoids the interest costs that come with annual payments over 20 years. The assessments will be included in the resident’s tax bill.

The vote to approve the resolution was close. The council voted 4 to 3 in favor. Voting yes were Mayor Notaro, and Council Members Pamela Gunn, Mitch Krach and Wanda Schwerer.

Baldwin had asked to delay a vote on the resolution, saying there are some people who have concerns that have not been heard.

“I think that they should be heard out before we have the first vote,” he said.

Baldwin was joined by Council members Jewels Chandler and John Pietrowski in voting no.

Resident Salina Ray, who lives on Aleta Drive in the Bellevue Estates neighborhood, said she had not been adequately notified of the undergrounding project.

“I had no knowledge of what was happening,” she said.

Ray said she was not even aware of the undergrounding petition that needed to be signed by the affected residents.

“This is the official start to moving forward,” said resident Todd Gould.

He said the utility undergrounding had been “a very long-term project,” and that people have had plenty of opportunities to have their voices heard. He said it is time to move ahead.

Glen Gunn, who also lives in that neighborhood, said burying the utility wires “is a commonsense proposition.”

“It’s safer, more reliable, and esthetically pleasing,” Gunn said.

He said the residents “voted in favor of the undergrounding, they believe in it, and are willing to pay for it.”

The council also passed a resolution authorizing Rives to get a binding estimate from Duke Energy for the project. The engineering fee from Duke to prepare the estimate is $4,000.

Rives said it may take six months to get the binding estimate, but the city will be moving forward with the financing and other aspects of the project simultaneously.

“Finding out the real cost is very beneficial to this project,” Rives said.

The numbers from the binding estimate will be used in establishing the final homeowner assessments. A 15 percent contingency was added to the original estimate, to allow for cost changes that may occur before the numbers are finalized.

Playground not required at Bayside Park

The city can look at options other than a playground for the space vacated when rusted out and worn playground equipment is removed from Bayside Park.

The question had come up at last month’s council meeting when Rives said the city would be spending almost $50,000 on the playground as part of a grant requirement to maintain the park. At that meeting, some council members had wanted to look at other possibilities for the playground area, including adding exercise equipment or other uses that could benefit older children and adults as well.

Rives said at the February meeting he had checked with Florida Community Trust and the Florida Recreation Assistance program, who were involved with the original grant, and found that the area has to be used as a recreation space, but does not have to include playground equipment.

Mayor Notaro said residents she had heard from liked the playground and wanted to keep it. Council Member Schwerer said she agreed.

Baldwin said he wanted to get competitive bids and look at a number of options, possibly adding fitness equipment. Chandler and Gunn also said the choices should include a range of costs. Pietrowski said a restroom is needed at the park. Several commissioners suggested the project should be reviewed by the Parks and Recreation Committee again.

Rives said he would come back to council with options for the playground space, including costs.

Commercially-planned weddings and events prohibited at Morgan Park

Weddings and other events done by for-profit planners will no longer be permitted at Morgan Park or public property.

A resolution that requires a permit for such gatherings was amended to say, “No permits shall be granted by the city manager for the conduct of any commercial, political or organized event by any person, group or organizer.” The city manager can also require groups wanting to use public property to provide a certificate of liability insurance and a damage and clean-up deposit.

Rives said the prohibition of commercial events is mostly in response to requests from for-profit wedding planners to use Morgan Park for weddings instead of the City Hall Community Center, to avoid paying rental fees.

Attorney Marino said the new law prohibits any commercial activity at Morgan Park.

“They are not going to be permitted to do it,” the attorney said.

Rives said he had received two or three such requests for weddings just within the past couple of weeks.

Couples not using the services of a for-profit planner can still have their wedding ceremony at Morgan Park, Marino added.