South Floridians, some without electricity for weeks after Hurricane Wilma, have pushed to bury power lines underground — until they saw the price tag.
In Fort Lauderdale, residents who want power lines buried could end up paying up to $25,000 over 20 years.
"That's a deal-killer," said Tamara Tennant, president of the city's Riviera Isles Homeowners Association, which wants the city to allow repayment over 30 years.
Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility, pays up to 25 percent of the cost of burying lines for qualified neighborhoods.
That's not enough to sway most of the 35 cities that clamored for buried lines after the region's last hurricane in 2005. Only nine have agreements with FPL to pursue it.
Burying lines debated
It will cost Coconut Creek $3.5 million to bury lines in three parts of the city, including along Lyons Road. That figure surprised Terri Bakouni, whose home is near the lines.
"That's a lot of money," she said. "But in the long run, it might be worth it because of the headaches we're going to endure … Who knows how many hurricanes we'll be getting."
Developers and the Seminole Tribe, which operates a casino in the city, will pay — not residents.
Skeptics, including some cities that backed away from the idea, say the cost is too high. Some say they're concerned about damage to the lines from severe floods. The Riviera Isles neighborhood recently installed saltwater barriers to protect it from flooding, Tennant said. If they work — and if repayment can be made over 30 years — residents should be able to decide this fall if they're willing to pick up the tab to bury their lines.
It's tempting, Tennant said, because studies have shown that property values go up with buried lines. Plus, they make neighborhoods more attractive and electric service safer and more reliable, she said.
"Every time the wind blows, the power goes out," Tennant said. "It looks like a Third World country down here with lines hanging all over the place and poles leaning. It's just not attractive."
There were few outages after Wilma in Weston, where about 80 percent of utility lines are buried. "Most people attributed that to [the lines being] underground," City Manager John Flint said in a 2009 interview. Weston is a relatively new community, created in the mid-1990s and with a boom in growth in the early 2000s, Flint said.
Bakouni, of Coconut Creek, said her home lost power for about a week after Wilma: "It was bad. Not having power, just seeing all the posts bent over. It was not a pretty sight."
Buried lines cost less to maintain, repair and replace because they're not vulnerable to fallen trees, strong winds and hurricanes, said Dan Comerford, mayor of Jupiter Inlet Colony. The town breaks ground this week on its project to bury all of its lines.
FPL spokesman Mayco Villafana said more than one-third of FPL's distribution lines — those that carry power from substations to neighborhoods — are buried. He said FPL is the only utility in the state to offer the discount program to encourage "converting facilities to underground, making them more resilient to storms."
Why does it cost so much?
FPL estimates on its website that underground service in a new subdivision costs about a third more to install than overhead service. Converting an existing neighborhood from overhead to buried lines costs much more.
The reason, FPL says: It involves "building a whole new system, while operating the existing service and then dismantling the existing service once the new one is up and running."
All of that must be done while ensuring that water, gas and sewer lines are not affected.
Some cities have managed to reduce the cost. For instance, Jupiter Island, a town in southMartin County, wanted to bury all of its lines and was given an early, "ball park" estimate of $21 million from FPL, said Town Manager Gene Rauth. The utility later lowered that to $12.5 million. By shopping around for some of the work FPL would have done, the city lowered its cost to $8.5 million, he said.
The majority of the city's roughly 700 residents approved the project through a referendum and straw poll. They're paying the cost over 20 years through a property tax.
The cost to each resident depends on his or her property value. On average, it works out to about $12,000.
"We are delighted the city managed to save additional dollars in addition to the 25 percent" discount, said FPL Spokesman Mayco Villafana. "If a city sharpens its numbers, makes adjustments and generates savings, that's all part of the process."
Most local governments require approval from neighborhoods that want to bury their lines. Jupiter Island and Jupiter Inlet Colony both put the issue before a citywide vote. Fort Lauderdale requires neighborhoods that want to bury lines to get approval from 70 percent of residents; the town of Palm Beach requires 80 percent.
FPL discounts the cost if cities meet a number of requirements, including having a neighborhood that wants to bury at least 3 miles of power lines or 200 properties close together — with some exceptions.
Neighborhoods or cities have to pay for removing old wires and the value of existing overhead wires, which in some neighborhoods can be fairly new. FPL gives credits for the projected cost of installing new overhead lines, something that would eventually need to be done.
At least two cities, Plantation and Palm Beach, are burying lines in some areas without the 25 percent FPL discount.
In some cities — including Coconut Creek, Hollywood and Plantation — the cost is being picked up by the city or developers, not residents directly. Delray Beach city officials are putting together a proposal to require developers to bury power lines for new projects.
Future of buried lines
As the memory of the devastation from Hurricane Wilma fades, some say it might take another major storm to inspire residents to want to pay for burying power lines.
Others say economic recovery would help, too.
"As soon as the economy turns around, there will be a lot more interest in other cities going underground," Comerford said.
Jvpatel@tribune.com or 954-356-4667Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times