The last time Tampa Electric Co. scarred a neighborhood by installing towering new power poles, the utility promised to reach out and work with affected communities in the future. So much for that. Residents in Ybor City were caught by surprise by new poles Tampa Electric is installing in the old Latin quarter. Some are eight stories high. Meeting with residents Tuesday, a company representative conceded: "We obviously missed something."
That "something" was a good-faith effort to warn residents in the National Historic Landmark District that the utility would be replacing old wooden poles with new and larger contraptions made of concrete or steel. That "something" was the same level of communication that went missing in 2003 when Tampa Electric planted even larger poles, without warning, in another Tampa community, Egypt Lake, north of downtown. And that "something" now that the poles are in place is a tangible solution to the residents' complaints.
Tampa Electric said it is replacing the poles in response to a state order to harden its infrastructure. That is fine; Floridians understand the need to strengthen the electric grid to better withstand severe weather. But it should have engaged these residents on the front end. The utility did notify neighborhood groups, but the company characterized the work as the Port of Tampa project, not the Ybor City project. And it did not show what the new poles would look like. Residents understandably feel deceived and worry the poles are ugly enough to jeopardize the architectural underpinnings of the district's historic status.
Tampa Electric has given no indication it intends to remove the poles or do anything truly meaningful beyond look for ways to prevent another such public relations disaster from happening again. But the company promised that the last time around, too, so it clearly learned nothing from its misbehavior in Egypt Lake.
The city deserves better from its electric provider. Tampa Electric needs to submit its plans for upgrading power lines in residential areas to a more robust public review. Residents deserve to know in advance how the utility intends to alter the character of their neighborhood — and affect their property values. The hurricane defense sounds good, but there always seems to be a surprise with Tampa Electric — followed by an empty promise to avoid repeating the mistake.