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Pawleys Island: Utility project will require $3,500 and some goodwill

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The town of Pawleys Island has a verbal commitment from Santee Cooper to advance $1.5 million out of a $3.9 million project to move electric and cable television lines underground. If it moves forward, the town will need about $3,500 and some goodwill from the owners of 421 properties to repay the utility.

Santee Cooper, a state-owned utility, rejected the town’s request to bill its customers on the island for the cost of the project along with their monthly electricity use. So the town will bill the owners, but it won’t be able to compel them to pay without creating a special tax district, according to Mayor Bill Otis.

The town has talked about moving power lines underground since its recovery from Hurricane Hugo in 1989. A non-binding referendum several years ago showed 64 percent of property owners favored the idea, but Town Council decided not to move forward unless it had 70 percent support.

In 2011, an underground wire project was completed for 47 property owners along Myrtle Avenue south of the South Causeway. It was led by Hayne Hipp, a property owner, who got the other owners to agree to pay half the cost of the project. The town picked up the other half using franchise fee revenue from the utility.

The proposed project will eliminate the power poles on the rest of the island. It will also install a feeder line along the North Causeway. Power to the island now comes along the South Causeway only.

Town Council has agreed to fund a future project on the same terms as the 2011 project: Paying half the total cost plus $1,000 per property. It has also received a private donation of $75,000 toward the project, which brings the balance left to be paid to $3,504 for each of the 421 properties that would be served.

The plan received approval last week from seven of the 25 members of a committee created by the council to review the project.

The $1.5 million from Santee Cooper will equal the property owners’ share. The utility will also manage the project.

“My preference would be to let [property owners] pay through their electricity bills,” said Guerry Green, who chairs the committee. Although the utility won’t do that, “it’s a big deal that they’ll manage the project.”

Committee members decided in February to treat the condominiums at Pawleys Pier Village as nine buildings rather than 54 units for the sake of the project, hoping to eliminate a source of opposition. It also debated whether to apportion cost by lot or by electric meter. It decided to use structures. That means the island’s 42 duplexes be counted as 42 buildings rather than 84 units.

But members say they know there will be questions raised about fairness. One came up during the annual meeting of the Pawleys Island Civic Association, where Otis outlined progress on the project. A homeowner said he already has underground wires from the power pole to his house. It didn’t seem fair that he should have to pay the full cost of the project, he said.

In fact, property owners will have to pay to run the lines from the street to their homes in addition to sharing the cost to put the lines underground.

“The town has tried to make this fair to everyone,” Otis said.

Committee members aren’t sure how many property owners may not pay if given the choice. “If they say ‘no’ the town will have to pay it,” committee member Larson Jaenicke said.

Committee member Bill Turnipseed said the town can’t let the possibility that a few won’t pay block the entire project.

Only one homeowner didn’t contribute to the 2011 project, Otis said. He believes owners will contribute because the project will improve the reliability and resilience of the system along with improving aesthetics and boosting property values. He cited a 2005 beach nourishment project as an example of owners’ willingness to share the cost of a town project.

Committee member Harold Wyatt said there are likely to be many property owners who pay the full cost up front rather than pay the interest that will be attached to long-term financing.

And Jaenicke suggested there may be another way to make the project attractive to property owners. He cited a state law that requires cable television companies to bury their lines when power lines are underground. The cost of burying Time Warner Cable’s lines accounts for $442,000 of the proposed project’s costs.

“Why are we paying $442,000 to give Time Warner a competitive advantage?” Jaenicke asked. “All I’m saying is have somebody look at it.”

Committee member Harry Oxner agreed, suggesting the town notify Time Warner of the law and see what the cable company plans to do about it.

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