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Wires have powerful hold on lives

They web their way across the landscape, so common that they can blend into the background of your consciousness.

Until you notice one, then another, then another and realize just how many there are.

Suddenly, they jump out at you from every direction.

Hanging from wooden poles that reach 35 to 40 feet in the air.

From concrete poles as high as 90 feet.

From missilelike metal poles as high as 120 feet.

From behemoth winged towers.

Power lines are a necessary part of modern life, but boy, are they ugly. And, some argue, a sign of what really controls our lives.

"What we see on the landscape tells us something about who and what we are or what we want to become," said Dr. Harvey Flad, a professor of geography at Vassar College who has spent a lot of time studying aesthetics' issues, including power lines. "It suggests that the consumption of energy is of paramount importance over and above other relationships to our environment."

Dunedin recently started talking about whether, over the next 20 years or more, it could start getting rid of some of the lines that crisscross its skies.

It is even tossing around the idea that it could take over the lines from Florida Power and use the money the city would save in franchise fees to the utility toward a program to bury the lines.

"Aesthetically, they look just awful," Dunedin City Manager John Lawrence said. There are also safety concerns and maintenance advantages, he said. "But mainly, I think, it (burying the lines) beautifies the city."

Power lines have been a special focus in Dunedin since Sept. 24, 1984, when two miles of 2\-inch steel cables dropped from utility poles along Milwaukee Avenue, hitting a 32-year-old woman and killing her. Her 63-year-old mother was critically injured.

Bud Voiland, who lives near Milwaukee, saw what happened that day and started campaigning to bury power lines. He hasn't had a lot of luck in 13 years, but he's still as sure as ever that it's the right thing to do.

"Even if they don't want to take down the ones they have now, they should bury new ones," Voiland said. "Power lines should all be underground. . . . They're such messengers of death, it's ridiculous."

Ken and Sandra Matthews live in the shadow of a large power line and pole.

When they bought their home on Keene Road between Clearwater and Largo in 1968, Keene was two lanes and their yard was free of utility poles.

For more than 20 years, though, one of Florida Power's largest power poles _ about 8{ feet around at its base _ has squatted on the corner of their lot. A Florida Power representative showed up one day to say that the pole across the street was cracking and the utility needed to put the new one in the front corner of the Matthewses' yard.

They weren't happy, but didn't see much alternative.

"You aren't going to beat City Hall or Florida Power, either one," Matthews said.

For years after the pole went up, on humid nights the Matthewses could hear the crackling of the lines over the sound of their television. They could watch sparks crackle down the line.

New transformers helped that problem a few years ago, and the Matthewses said they have gotten so they hardly notice the metal pole as they pull into their driveway.

They still have concerns about it, though.

"We have no idea how much of a deterrent it might be if we want to sell our house," Mrs. Matthews said. "People might be hesitant to buy the property with that there."

And, in the case of a hurricane, Mrs. Matthews said, she's worried about this huge thing crashing into her home. "You don't think something like that would come down, but then you didn't think something like Hurricane Andrew could wipe out a whole area."

The technology exists to allow almost all power lines to be buried.

The stumbling block is cost.

Florida Power spokeswoman Melanie Forbrick said the state's Public Service Commission regulates how much money the utility can spend on power lines.

"What they have charged the utilities with is delivering power in the most economical means possible," Forbrick said. "The most economical way is with overhead lines."

Florida Power owns 24,000 miles of distribution lines in its 32-county service area that carry electricity from main transmission lines to homes and small businesses. It has about 4,600 miles of the transmission lines, which can carry up to 500,000 volts.

How tall or round a pole is or what material it's made of depends on a number of factors, including the voltage of the line, makeup of the soil and whether the line is straight or takes a turn at the pole.

The distribution lines, generally the ones on the 35- to 40-foot wooden poles, are the easiest to move underground.

But burying them is much more expensive than hanging the lines on poles. Costs range from three to 10 times more, Forbrick said.

The 6,000 miles of distribution lines Florida Power has underground mostly are in newly developed areas where the developer can figure the added cost into the price of a home and lot.

Retrofitting older neighborhoods is less common. The lines on Sand Key were buried a couple of years ago at a cost of about $900,000, shared by residents. Island Estates in Clearwater is looking at the idea now. The cost there for the southern portion of the island is estimated at about $3-million, or $1,100 to $1,950 per household.

The big transmission lines, the ones that generally hang on the huge steel or concrete poles, are 20 to 25 times more expensive to bury, she said, because those high-voltage lines must be encased in special conduits.

In Winter Park a while back, Forbrick said, the city decided it wanted a transmission line buried just in the area where the wires crossed a major road. The additional cost to the city for running the line under the six-lane road, she said, was about $200,000.

All the extra expense might be easier to justify if reliability were the primary concern, Forbrick said. But it isn't.

"What we've found in industry-wide studies is that aesthetics comes first, way before reliability" as a reason people want the lines buried, she said. "We get answers of one of those two things, but mostly it is aesthetics."