OLD SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — Is there a place for electric fencing in a city?
Frank Brozik thinks so.
After thieves took off with $20,000 in tools from his shop, A1 Car Sales and Services, he installed a security system complete with cameras and laser sensors around his parking lot, which is wrapped in chain-link fencing.
He would add electric wire, too, if it were legal, he said.
Well, it actually is.
Less than a mile north of Brozik's shop on Nebraska Avenue, two tire shops are wrapped in 20 electric strands of wire 10 feet high.
"This is the only way that you stop the robberies," said Luis Suriel, owner of Sunshine Tires.
Suriel's shop and nearby LNR Tires are the only two businesses sanctioned by the city to have electric fencing.
But homeowners who live nearby say the barriers don't make for good neighbors.
"No one wants to live in a gulag (a Soviet forced-labor camp)," said Shawn Hicks, president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association.
Like some people in Tampa, the presence of electric fences that shock would-be thieves — and even passers-by who touch them — came as a surprise to Brozik.
Others, like Hicks, have been fighting the fences for a while without success.
City code allows electric fences for commercial and industrial uses with approval from a variance review board "where a security need is demonstrated."
But standards are vague for demonstrating that need.
During a City Council workshop Oct. 14, officials will try to clarify the criteria required and the process to install electric fences, said Catherine Coyle, city zoning administrator. In August, the City Council voted down a staff recommendation that would have required applicants to prove recent criminal activity.
Old Seminole Heights neighborhood activists showed up with stacks of letters from residents unhappy with the current ordinance, saying electric fences should not be the first line of defense. Many have worked for years to eradicate fences — barbed and razor wire, and now electric, along thoroughfares such as Florida and Nebraska avenues.
Drop in crime brings owner no comfort
Sunshine Tires shares a property line with Cheney Park, where children shoot hoops daily on a basketball court.
Commercial businesses abut single-family historic bungalows here, Hicks said. Homeowners could conceivably have a backyard barbecue with razor wire as a backdrop.
It makes the neighborhood feel scary, they say.
Despite the scenery, crime has dropped significantly in the area, Hicks said, adding that other businesses along Nebraska don't see a need to literally shock outsiders.
But Suriel does. He says he was robbed continually after opening Sunshine Tires six years ago. In one week, he lost $15,000 worth of tires and rims.
"This is a bad neighborhood," he said.
A block away from his shop, a Tampa police officer, Cpl. Mike Roberts, was shot and killed by a homeless man in August 2009.
Suriel hasn't been robbed since April 2005, he said, when he hired Electric Guard Dog of South Carolina to install and maintain electric fencing around his property, which costs about $800 a month.
Along the shop's property line, signs in Spanish warn of electrical shock of 7,000 volts on a chain link fence. The electric fence is several inches inside the chain link fence. The 7,000 volts pulse through the wire every 1.3 seconds and the shock lasts for 1 to 3 ten-thousandths of a second, said Jack DeMao, the company's CEO.
City code limits electric fencing to 12 volts. DeMao says his fencing is within those limitations because the primary voltage is a 12 volt DC battery charged by a solar panel. The 7,000 volts is what is called a "secondary" pulse, creating a "safe but memorable shock," he said.
The code only addresses primary voltage, said Gloria Moreda, manager of Tampa's land use coordination division.
DeMao said his company has about 2,500 customers nationwide, including more than 50 in Houston. Most are trucking and auto auction companies. Electric fencing is typically a last resort, he said.
Steve Michelini, who has represented Sunshine Tires and nearby LNR Tires, 9402 Nebraska Ave., at council meetings, said it's necessary for their survival. The tire shops are viable here now, he said. But if owners can't protect their assets, he said, the properties would be vacant eyesores.
Closer to downtown on Tampa Street, Richard DelRosal, owner of Biki's Frame & Body Shop, says his property had razor wire along the back when he moved in 30 years earlier. He removed it, rather than seek a variance, after city code enforcement gave him a citation. He misses it, though. The property is surrounded by chain link now, and homeless people slip into his back yard and bathe with a hose from a neighboring building, he said.
Brozik, the robbery victim who wants electric fencing, moved his auto shop to Nebraska Avenue, near Tampa Greyhound Track, from Brooksville a little over a year ago. He's familiar with the fencing, common in rural areas.
"I'm a farm boy," he said.
But electric fencing has a place in the city, too, he says.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.