Undergrounding utilities and mature trees are debated
The City Council took a first step towards considering a citywide plan to underground utilities, voting unanimously on Tuesday to hire consultants to assess options and work with city staff and utility officials to expedite the process.
In other unrelated actions, the council also considered an official designation for 25 heritage trees on 10 properties in South Laguna, and resolved to allay confusion with a future agenda item stemming from a 20-year-old annexation plan and trees that may merit special protections. The council also established a wastewater management task force to make recommendations to the South Orange County Wastewater Authority for strategic planning of the wastewater facilities at the treatment plant in Aliso Canyon.
Council members Steve Dicterow and Toni Iseman, who worked on the undergrounding proposal together, both credited longtime resident Arnold Hano for insisting on the importance of the issue and pushing them to get it on the Council’s agenda.
“It’s big, it’s going to take a long time, it’s going to be very expensive, it’s not easy, but we have to start,” said Dicterow.
Connections to about 40 percent of the city’s 10,900 electric meters are already underground, according to utility company data. Over the years, individual property owners banded into assessment districts have underwritten years-long efforts to rid themselves of utility poles in order to improve neighborhood safety and aesthetics. The cost of undergrounding the rest of the city could run to about $125 million, not including the lines along Laguna Canyon Road, a separate program, according to staff estimates.
One consultant would investigate cost and funding sources, and gauge community support for single assessment districts or a tax to underwrite a bond measure. Another consultant would manage and expedite projects.
From the standpoint of public safety, Iseman said certain neighborhoods, such as those with boxed in canyons should be prioritized, and Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson suggested Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road should take priority. The latter may attract federal funding, Iseman said.
Should a citywide initiative take affect, Dicterow suggested that residents who have already paid for undergrounding through assessment districts in their own neighborhoods, may require “some credit for that in order to make this fair.”
“Doing this all now and doing it well and doing it fast will save money,” said Hano, offering the only public commentary on the item. “It’s a win, win, win,” he concluded.
Winners and losers were less clear on the matter of South Laguna’s heritage trees, a matter of confusion among staff, Council members and the public as to whether the trees held city heritage status or lacked it.
Confusion arose from a 1989 resolution to adopt the South Laguna Specific Plan, two years after the formerly unincorporated county area was annexed. The plan referenced an inventory of heritage trees. South Laguna Civic Association members argued that the trees became city heritage trees with the adoption of the resolution.
But City Attorney Phil Kohn noted a discrepancy between county and city statutes over heritage trees. The city requires that property owners agree to the heritage status, which requires a permit for substantial alteration of the tree, for construction within 15 feet or for its removal. It is unclear if South Laguna property owners were similarly noticed.
For two decades, the city has mostly treated the trees on South Laguna’s list as only candidates for heritage status, City Manager John Pietig said, meaning they were recognized as special trees, but the owners had yet to request special status. Even so, he conceded at least one exception where such a tree was treated as having heritage status.
“That’s the problem, that there’s confusion,” said Planning Manager Ann Larson, explaining why last year the city began notifying 190 property owners whose trees were on the inventory, outlining benefits and restrictions of heritage status and seeking their permission to retain or remove such status.
In all, 19 property owners submitted requests for official heritage tree status and 91 asked to have their trees removed from the list, while 29 owners claimed the tree no longer existed or wasn’t on their property, and 47 owners never responded.
City staff notified property owners and residents near the 19 properties seeking heritage tree status. By the time of Council deliberations, three applications were withdrawn, one tree was found to already be on the city’s official list, and staff had received feedback from neighbors disputing trees on five properties.
Staff recommended that the Council approve the heritage tree status of the uncontested trees and direct staff to work with concerned parties to resolve the issues on the contested trees. A unanimous Council vote sealed the deal.
A further staff recommendation that the Council confirm all remaining trees on the South Laguna list as candidate heritage trees proved problematic.
Greg O’Loughlin claimed that the South Laguna community had approved their entire list of trees and in singling out a handful for heritage status, the Council was in effect denying the rest of the trees that status. “From our end, we are losing,” he said.
Anne Christoph agreed. To me the list of heritage trees is already intact,” she said.
In a July 14 letter to the Council, the association’s secretary, attorney Jim Joseph declared, “Nothing in the action the Council took when adopting the list in 1989 indicates any difference in the status of South Laguna’s Heritage trees compared to those in the rest of the city.”
Asked about South Laguna’s transition from county to city jurisdiction, Kohn said the question illustrated the fact that “there has been healthy amount of confusion and a pattern of uncertainty and inconsistency.”
Council member Bob Whalen conceded that a council vote to place all trees on the candidate list that weren’t designated as heritage trees Tuesday night, would be the same as deciding that they were not official heritage trees. He said documents and meeting notes at the time the list was created failed to reveal that property owners were involved placing their trees on the inventory.
Iseman held the position that the trees on South Laguna’s list should be considered official heritage trees. Then, if owners wanted to go through the process to remove them from the list, which requires Council approval, they could, she said.
Dicterow said that such an important decision needed full consideration as a future agenda item of its own, and the Council voted 4-1 (with Pearson dissenting) to continue the decision.