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Today we received a letter from Zach Shipley, Co-Chair of the Palm Beach Residents for Undergrounding. It's to his neighbor outlining the reasons that undergrounding our utilities in the Town of Palm Beach is a good idea and worth the cost.

 

Zach Shipley

Zach Shipley, Co-Chair, Palm Beach Residents for Undergrounding

Letter from Mr. Shipley:

 

February 24, 2016

Dear Charlie:

I received the note you placed in my mailbox. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

I agree with you on one thing: Undergrounding is not “needed”. None of us in Palm Beach
needs underground utilities any more than we need tennis courts, public parks, beach access, fine
restaurants, or art galleries. By any absolute standard, all these things are indulgences. As I see
it, these things cost more than a subsistence-level lifestyle, but they are worth the cost. That is
why I live in Palm Beach instead of another place where life would be more economical.

I disagree that underground utilities “will make living here [on Seaspray Avenue] a nightmare.”
For me, putting utilities underground is one of those things that will improve the quality of life in
Palm Beach. Whether or not it will improve the appearance of my house (which, like yours, is
on Seaspray Avenue), it will improve the appearance of our Town.

Homes like yours and mine are worth millions of dollars. Obviously, this is not just because of
the merits of the properties themselves, nor even of their setting, Seaspray Avenue. Almost
anywhere but Palm Beach, our homes and our street would be considered nice, but not
extraordinary, and our properties might be valued at a fraction of their value here. Equally
obviously, what raises their values to the lofty levels of Palm Beach is the amenities and
attractiveness of the Town overall. Our streetscapes—not just on our own street, but throughout
the Town—are critical to that valuation. Our implicit claim to anyone considering a home here
is that this is a place where the citizenry will bear cost and inconvenience to maintain an
exceptionally attractive urban appearance. It is why we have an Architectural Commission and
landscaping ordinances. Overhead power lines undermine that claim. They are the poster child
of urban ugliness. Removing them will make the Town more attractive and its properties more
valuable. No one knows how to quantify the uplift in value, and it will vary from property to
property. What we do know is that some of the nicest Florida towns (e.g., Jupiter Island, Jupiter
Inlet Colony, Gulfstream, and Winter Park) have put their utilities underground.

I don’t expect to sell my home in the foreseeable future, and I suppose neither do you, so this
may not seem to you a good reason to support undergrounding. Still, the cost of undergrounding
utilities is small compared to the total costs of maintaining a home here. You don't have to see
huge benefits to believe it is worth the cost.

Appearances aside, there is the matter of reliability. Having studied it, I believe underground
utilities will greatly improve reliability of our utility services.

I understand that on-the-ground transformers are more vulnerable to flooding than overhead
ones, but I think the extra risk is small. The transformers and the wires that feed them are pretty
well insulated against water intrusion. They are used throughout Florida, and FPL designs them
for that service. Furthermore, while there is a lot of talk about flooding in Palm Beach, with one
exception, flooding in the Town has been localized and of short duration. I know that Seaspray
Avenue occasionally accumulates maybe a foot of water. I know that, after a really heavy rain,
our brake pads get wet driving past The Breakers. But these “floods” don’t reach our knees and
are gone in hours. The reason, ironically, is that Palm Beach is surrounded by water and has
excellent storm drainage. The kind of “flood” we get here is the kind that ruins your shoes, or
maybe a carpet, if you live in a low spot. The transformers in question “trip off” when water
around them reaches a height of about one foot above the pad they sit on. FPL can easily locate
them where Palm Beach flooding rarely gets that deep.

Still, there can be a big flood. I believe the only one on record was during the hurricane of 1928,
when, in the Town of Palm Beach, storm surge lifted large boats ashore, and people had to sweep
fish from their houses. I heartily acknowledge that, if there are fish in my house, the transformer
on the ground serving the house will probably be out of order. The key fact is that it probably
won’t matter, because, once the electrical outlets in a building have been submerged, authorities
will not allow power to be restored to the building until its wiring has been repaired and inspected.
Even a generator will not prevent such an outage. Fortunately, a flood like this seems to
happen only once in a century.

I am not trying to sidestep the issue of underground utilities’ vulnerability to flooding. What I
am saying is that the depth of flooding that would interrupt transformer operation is so
infrequent, and, when such flooding does occur, it does such great damage to structures besides
utility equipment, that utilities’ resistance to flood is less important than their resistance to wind.

Windstorm damage to overhead utilities is just as crippling as flood damage to underground
ones, but windstorms happen much more often than real floods. And, after a hurricane, unlike a
real flood, most homes are still habitable, if only their power can be restored. In short, the wise
course is not to allow fears of hundred-year flooding to get in the way of hurricane resistance,
which is critical every five or 10 years.

Moreover, the place where overhead utility services are most vulnerable to wind is behind your
house and mine. That is where the poles are smallest and the trees come closest to overhead
wires. Also, the resulting outages are usually localized, affecting only the few utility customers
on one or two blocks. FPL prioritizes repairs according to the number of customers affected.

Because so few customers are affected by any single backyard-tree outage, these outages are the
kinds of outages that don’t get repaired for days or weeks after a hurricane.

Critically, in my mind, FPL’s hardening plan calls for replacing only the utility poles that carry
the main power lines through Town. The poles behind your house and mine will not be changed.

In the next hurricane, we will be subject to the same risk of backyard-tree outages as we suffered
in 2004-2005. (Not to mention that our poles are now 10 years older.)

All that said, I can understand why some property owners might not favor undergrounding.
Some may feel they just can’t afford it, even though it will be an improvement. Others, perhaps
including you, are focused primarily on their own properties and are fearful about the appearance
of transformers near their homes, placing little value on the positive effect on the Town overall.
If that is how you feel, let’s agree to disagree.

As I said, I favor undergrounding. I think it is worth the cost, even if I have to accommodate a
transformer in my front yard. I want the increased reliability. I want the Town as a whole to
enjoy the better appearance and greater desirability as a place to live. I hope, and believe, that
most people in Palm Beach feel the same.

Very truly yours,

Zachary Shipley