July 11--ST. PETERSBURG -- Plagued by vandalism, including $40,000 damage to an air-conditioning unit, Tibbetts Lumber Co. installed an electrified fence around its yard on Fairfield Avenue more than two years ago.
The electrified part of the fence, which carries a short 12-volt pulsed electric charge, sits above and slightly behind a 6-foot chain-link fence that does not impart any shock. The system works as an alarm, with the current only switched on when the lumber yard is closed, and it has proved successful at deterring vandals, owners say.
But electrified fences are illegal in St. Petersburg, even though the city has one encircling a water-pumping station in Pinellas Park, where the fences are legal.
On Thursday, a proposal to allow electrified fences in parts of the city sparked divisions on the city council, which was split between safety concerns for passersby and the need to help businesses protect their premises. After an hour-long discussion on the issue and several failed votes, council members sent the idea back to a committee for further discussion.
Under the proposal, electrified fences would be permitted if the part that carries the charge is at least 3 inches behind a non-electrical perimeter fence. Warning notices would have to be posted every 60 feet, and the fences would be permitted only on land zoned for industrial use, which includes Tibbetts lumber yard.
Council critics of the proposal noted that the yard is close to Gibbs High School and on a path students use.
"This is an extreme case where it's right next to the school," Councilman Karl Nurse said. "I'm perplexed the way barbed-wire fence and our police department aren't sufficient to protect our properties."
The city has other industrial areas that abut residential properties where electrified fences would be a concern, Councilwoman Amy Foster said.
"I'm thinking about electrified fences in the Warehouse Arts District, and I'm just not comfortable," she said.
Councilmen Bill Dudley, Jim Kennedy and Charlie Gerdes supported the proposal. Gerdes expressed frustration that the city is impeding a company that, instead of complaining to the city for more police protection, is prepared to spend its own money to take care of the problem.
"We've got people who are willing to invest their own resources to try and contribute, and not relying upon and being a parasite on the government," Gerdes said. "Just because we pass this ordinance doesn't mean you have to put up an electrical fence. It just gives you an opportunity."
Electrified fences are permitted in at least 27 cities and 13 counties in Florida, according to Electric Guard Dog, the company that installed and owns the fence at Tibbetts.
That includes Pinellas Park, where St. Petersburg installed a fence around the Oberly Pumping Station on 66th Street North as an anti-terrorism measure after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Cindy Gsell, director of business development for Guard Dog, said the fences are safe for passersby and that only someone who is trying to illegally enter a premises would receive a "safe but memorable" shock. Typically businesses turn to her company as a last resort, she said.
"They've tried barbed wire; they've tried lighting," she said. "This is not inexpensive. They're desperate for theft protection and security if they come to us."
Tibbetts has operated in St. Petersburg since 1946 and employs about 50 people in the city. President Juan Quesada said even the presence of security guards has not stopped people from stealing copper from the air-conditioning units on the roof.
"It presents a problem for us if we go back to the level of vandalism we had before," Quesada said. "We would even possibly relocate."
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