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Our Town: Town-wide Utility Burial Moving Through Easement Challenges While Search Narrows for New Manager

The town is marching forward with the burial of all overhead utilities on the island – an ambitious, decade-long undertaking that remains on track despite the departure in December of program manager Steve Stern.

“It seems to be going pretty well,” Town Manager Kirk Blouin said last week. Less than four years after construction started, the project is nearly halfway complete, he said.

The biggest challenge, Blouin said, lies in persuading many owners to accept property easements needed to install on-the-ground electrical power transformers and other utility boxes required for the new buried system.

That job fell largely on Stern’s shoulders and consumed most of his time, Blouin said.

A nationwide search for Stern’s successor yielded interviews with four finalists, but no candidate had been recommended for the high-profile post as of Thursday, Blouin said.

Stern had been manager since mid-2017, the same year workers dug shovels into dirt on the first two of eight eventual construction phases required to bury all overhead power, cable television and telephone lines on the island.

Stern, whose annual pay was $110,644, left Dec. 18 to become director of quantum solutions with Zapata Computing, based in Boston, Mass.

Town Engineer Patricia Strayer was the obvious choice to temporarily assume his duties, Blouin said. “That was a seamless transition because Patricia was involved routinely in the easement acquisition process. She is familiar with the contractors, team members and all of our staff.”

The new buried system will be safer because it will eliminate conflicts between overhead power lines and the island’s dense vegetation, town officials have said. It also will be aesthetically superior and, according to the town and Florida Power & Light, more reliable during storms.

While the program itself seems popular with residents and businesses, the private utility easements typically are not.

The easements are generally around 8 to 10 feet wide and usually located in an owners’ front or side yard, so Florida Power & Light crews will be able to service the equipment. The boxes are situated on concrete pads and screened with landscaping.

Generally, a utility easement is needed on about one in every four properties throughout town, officials have said. But that can vary greatly depending on the power load required by larger properties.

Stern spent most of his time with phone calls, emails, property site visits, and in some cases dealing with attorneys of property owners who were asked to accept an easement.

“What we found, particularly in the beginning, was that even though the project was well publicized, it’s typical human behavior that people weren’t really paying attention until it came to their street,” Blouin said. “In some cases, they may just hand it over to their attorney. But attorneys handle things through a different lens.”

Each phase moves through a design period and into easement acquisition before construction begins there.

“In the first eight months, you get 70 to 80 percent of the easements secured,” Strayer said. “Then you spend the next six months to a year working on the rest.”

When not enough owners grant easements to serve a given street, the town is sometimes able to find enough space within the public right of way, Blouin said. That means the utility boxes are placed somewhere beside the street.

But that doesn’t always work well aesthetically, and aesthetics, after all, are one of the benefits of burying the overhead utility system to begin with, Public Works Director Paul Brazil said.

The public right of way isn’t always an option. Some streets are too narrow, and it isn’t permitted on state roads, Brazil said.

“Equipment in the right of way is better than overhead but not as good as back on private or public property,” he said.

The option of last resort is to build a chicane or street choker – a curbed landscaped area that curves outward into a residential street. Nobody seems to like them or think they’re appropriate for Palm Beach; only one has actually been built in the town, on Laurie Lane in the North End. It’s about 25 feet long by 8 feet wide.

But the possibility of chicane construction has loomed over other streets where there weren’t any or enough easements being granted. Strayer said the town resorted to staging a physical “exhibit” showing residents how far out the chicane would bite into their street.

“That usually stirs up some kind of reaction,” Strayer said. “Then, generally, someone will step up.”

In the Phase 4 North area, between La Puerta Way and List Road, the town staged five temporary chicanes – three-foot-tall flexible deflectors outlining the boundary of where the chicane would be.

That elicited the desired response. “We were able to resolve all five of those,” Strayer said. “It felt like quite a success. We were very happy with that.”

It’s not unusual for the easement negotiations to overlap with the actual construction of the new buried system within a project phase area. But once construction starts, there’s a clock ticking. It typically takes 24 to 30 months to dig the trenches, lay conduit, install the new equipment, make the power conversion, then remove the overhead equipment.

Because it is so large, and the impact on neighborhoods is so great, the town carved the project into eight “phases” – each representing a different area of town. Plans call for all but the eighth phase to occur simultaneously in two parts of town.

The last phase is scheduled for completion around 2026 but Strayer said delays associated with obtaining the easements may add a year of construction to the schedule.

Completed so far are Phase 1 North, in the North End from Onondaga Avenue north to the Palm Beach Inlet; Phase 2 North, from Onondaga Avenue south to Ocean Terrace; and Phase 1 South, from Sloan’s Curve south to the south Town Limit.

On the verge of completion is Phase 3 North, between Osceola Way and Nightingale Trail. In that neighborhood, the new system is installed and FPL is converting customers to it. Then the utility poles will be taken down, probably in May, Strayer said.

Phase 2 South, from Sloan’s Curve north to the intersection of South County Road and South Ocean Boulevard, is a year into construction.

Work recently began on Phase 4 North, from La Puerta Way south to List Road.

Phase 3 South, from south of Worth Avenue southward to the intersection of South County Road and State Road A1A, is also under construction.

Easement acquisition has been especially tough in the area of Golfview Road and the alley south of Worth Avenue, which serves many of the businesses on the avenue, officials have said. But Strayer said the town and owners have reached an agreement. “It’s still a struggle, but we are making good progress right now,” she said.

In the coming months, the town expects to award construction contracts for Phase 4 South, which is from Peruvian Avenue north to Royal Palm Way, including the Town Marina; for Phase 5 North, which is from Country Club Road south to Southland Road; and for Phase 5 South, which includes the properties between South Lake Drive and Hibiscus Avenue, and the area between Peruvian Avenue and Royal Palm Way, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Lake Worth Lagoon.

The remaining phases – 6 north and south, 7 north and south, and Phase 8, are being designed, Strayer said.

Blouin said the overall project is “pretty much within the [anticipated $128 million] budget.” The town is financing it through bonds which are being repaid over 30 years through annual assessments on individual homeowners.

Much work remains over the next few years, and Stern’s successor will have large shoes to fill, Blouin said. Above all, the town wants someone with easement expertise and who knows how to engage with the public, he said.

“I don’t think people realized what a great asset Steve was to the project – how conscientious and valuable he was,” Blouin said.

Stern had planned to stay until every last overhead pole came down, then retire. But he said he received an unexpected employment opportunity that he just couldn’t pass up.
In an email this week, Stern said, “For three and a half years, I appreciated the opportunity to interact with the town’s residents, property owners, officials, contractors, and staff on a unique and important program.”