The Coastal Star

Gulf Stream: Condo residents seek cut in utility-burying costs

By Tim O’Meilia

Gulf Stream’s plan to put all its utility lines — electric, telephone and cable — under ground has aroused the concerns of condominium residents worried about how much they will be assessed for the estimated $5.5 million project.
More than 20 condominium residents packed the Town Commission chambers April 28 to protest the method that will be used to assess town residents to pay for the project.
The typical condo owner would pay $6,128 for the work, while owners of single-family homes would pay an average of $10,260, based on lot size and other factors, according to Willdan Financial Services, which is preparing the assessment plan for the town.
“We are in no way opposed to undergrounding,” said attorney Marcie Nolan, representing the 54 unit owners of Gulfstream Shores, at the earlier April 8 Town Commission meeting. But she said the condominium alone would be paying $350,000 for the work.
At the April 28 meeting, Nolan suggested the assessment could be based on front footage and area, which would charge a condominium building as a single unit. Under her plan, condo owners’ share would be cut to  $349 while charges for single-family residents would jump to about $18,488.
Willdan representative Habib Isaac said his firm’s methodology has been used in 12 undergrounding projects in the past five years. It relies on safety, reliability and aesthetic factors which differ between single-family homes and condos.
“Quite frankly, there is no way to make everyone happy,” said Susan Schoettle-Gumm, special counsel for the project. “When you reduce costs to one group, it increases for another. This is a common part of going through an assessment process.”
The commission prelim-inarily approved an ordinance to place whatever assessment is approved on homeowners’ property tax bills as a non-ad valorem special assessment. The commission has not yet approved a final assessment.
The town plans to offer residents a 10- or 20-year payment plan.
Nolan said a simple ad valorem special assessment would allow a tax deduction for the cost. A non-ad valorem assessment is not tax deductible.
However, that method would mean residents of Place Au Soleil, whose utilities are already underground, would have to pay the assessment as well. 
In other business at the April 8 meeting, town commissioners approved three firms for consultant Brannon & Gillespie to negotiate with to map and survey streets, driveways, utilities and buildings in the south end. That step is the first phase of developing a design for the project. The town has approved $50,000 for the work.
Commissioners voiced concern about cost overruns, but consultant James Brannon, whose firm managed the burying of utilities on Jupiter Island and is handling Jupiter Inlet Colony’s project, said both had come in under budget.
“We had $15 million in Jupiter Island but came in at $8.4 million,” Brannon told commissioners. “We typically do not run over.”
The plan is to start work on the south end of town, followed by the north end — including the 16.6 acres annexed in March — by year’s end. The project should be completed by late 2012.
Voters approved the project in a straw vote in March, 175-136, a 56.3 percent majority. Similar projects were approved on Jupiter Island by 90 percent and in Jupiter Inlet Colony by 75 percent.
In other business: Mayor William Koch, one of the oldest and longest-serving mayors in Florida, was reappointed by commissioners for three more years. At 90, he has served half of his life — 45 years — as Gulf Stream’s mayor. Joan Orthwein was reappointed vice mayor. Both were by unanimous votes.
n Commissioners increased development and building permit fees for the first time in nearly a decade for development costs and four years for fees.
n Commissioners approved $15,000 to update the town’s comprehensive land plan following the annexation. They also approved $20,000 for costs of the annexation process, including poll workers and
legal fees.                   

Mary Kate Leming contributed to this story

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