Several St. Petersburg City Council members understandably had a negative reaction when a local lumber company sought a change in city codes this month so it can keep the electrified fence it installed illegally around its property next to Gibbs High School. Council members expressed concerns about safety, but also about aesthetics and the message it would send if they okayed electrified fencing in the predominantly African-American community where students walk to and from school. Elsewhere in the city, electrified fencing isn't allowed because it is unattractive and potentially hazardous to pedestrians. A different approach should be found to address the lumber company's security problem.
Electrified fences aren't just hazardous, they also clash with St. Petersburg's desire to create a walkable, pedestrian-friendly city. But two years ago Tibbetts Lumber Co. at 3300 Fairfield Ave. S, which is separated from Gibbs High by the Pinellas Trail, installed the electrified fence to prevent thefts from its outdoor lumber yard. Nothing else the company tried, including a perimeter chain link fence topped with barbed wire, had foiled the thieves.
The chain link fence, which borders the sidewalks around the large property along U.S. 19, remains. The electrified fence is installed a few inches inside the chain link fence. Signs warn that the inner fence is electrified. Electrified fencing gives a "safe but memorable shock," said Cindy Gsell of Electric Guard Dog, the fence company that asked the city for the code change. Noting that the fence had been up for two years without generating complaints, Gsell asked for a code amendment that would allow electrified fences in all nonresidential areas of St. Petersburg where outside storage is permitted. The city staff recommended that the council approve the fencing, but only in industrially zoned areas, though it was later pointed out that in some areas of the city, industrial property abuts residential neighborhoods.
Council member Wengay Newton was worried about having the electrified fence so close to the sidewalk that Gibbs students use, but his motions to require the fence to be pushed back anywhere from 5 feet to as little as 6 inches didn't win support from the rest of the council. Neither did council member Charlie Gerdes' motion to allow the fences without any setback.
After numerous failed motions, it was clear that council members Newton, Steve Kornell, Karl Nurse and Amy Foster were concerned about safety, but also were uncomfortable about okaying an electrified fence in that pedestrian area when they aren't allowed in other places in the city because of potential danger to pedestrians. "Do the kids at Gibbs not count?" Kornell asked.
Foster ended the stalemate with a successful motion to refer the request to a council committee, where it ought to die. The lumber company's legitimate security issues can be addressed in other ways — security cameras and more targeted police patrols, for example — that won't turn industrial properties in the southern portion of the city into blocks equipped like prison yards.