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Expert Jolts Talks on Burying Utilities

Expected to hire a consultant to explore burying utilities citywide on Tuesday, the City Council instead delayed their decision as a result of surprising testimony during a public hearing.

Flamingo Road provided the staging area last October for Edison to replace utility poles. Laguna's council Tuesday considers hiring a consultant to plan for a citywide program to put them all underground. Photos by Mitch Ridder

Flamingo Road provided the staging area last October for Edison to replace utility poles. Laguna’s council Tuesday considers hiring a consultant to plan for a citywide program to put them all underground. Photos by Mitch Ridder

Laguna Beach resident Dennis Eastman, a former 40-year Southern California Edison executive, came forward to volunteer an insider’s insight and assurances that by “thinking out of the box” the city could achieve its goal of converting above ground utility poles and wires to subterranean ones in a decade from planting of the first shovel.

Given the staff’s $125 million cost estimate, and the 10 plus years it has taken small neighborhood assessment districts in Laguna to push utilities to extract above-ground poles from streets, Eastman’s proposal might inspire skepticism.

Instead, his confidence and apparent grasp of the issues convinced the Council to explore his suggestions and put off the consulting contract to devise a citywide plan that was under consideration.

Virtually no one disputes the value of ridding the town’s streets and backyards of the unsightly wire-strewn poles that have sparked fires. Just 40 percent of the town’s 10,900 electric meters are below ground, says a city report. Besides safety and views, below ground utilities free-up roadside space that could make room for bike and pedestrian paths, helping the city fulfill a state mandate to make roads accessible to all modes of transportation.

While the expense and slowness of utility companies to retrofit their equipment serve as obvious obstacles to a citywide push, Eastman insists these can be surmounted given the right leadership and public support.

At the behest of council directives last year, staff worked with Council members Steve Dicterow and Toni Iseman and solicited proposals for two tasks: to deal with overhead utilities citywide; and to assist in expediting current and future neighborhood assessment districts.

The Council went ahead and awarded the Santa Ana office of Psomas, partnering with AndersonPenna Partners and Communications LAB, a one-year, $110,000 contract assisting ongoing assessment districts. But a $49,000 citywide study of undergrounding options that the Council seemed poised to approve (scaled down from a more in-depth $244,000 analysis) was shoved to the back burner following Eastman’s testimony. Instead, city officials will convene with Eastman in the next two weeks to flesh out his ideas.

He urged the Council to rethink the consultant’s assignment. The work should be signed off in a decade or less, Eastman said, and the consultants should be instructed to think creatively, and interested residents should participate in the process.

Asked to describe his “out of the box” approach, Eastman suggested possibly helping the utilities to maneuver outside regulatory walls by brainstorming for ideas and even lobbying the Public Utilities Commission for rules changes.

“People don’t realize that the P.U.C. is there to help solve problems and that they tend to side with end users,” said Eastman, after the meeting. The agency can be a strong ally in exacting change if you do your homework and present them a solid case, he said.

Eastman also insisted that he can outline alternative funding options other than relying on higher taxes to underwrite bonds, a model used by most cities. He declined to disclose them, however, saying he feared they might be oversimplified and misconstrued in translation.

“I agree with Dennis that we have to move differently from how we moved before,” said resident Arnold Hano, who spearheaded the push for a citywide solution to the overhead eyesores.

Resident Chris Reed, in turn, said that if the Council heeded Eastman’s proposal and it works, “the city will raise statues if you solve this.”

“I’d welcome your involvement, and your history with Edison can help since they are our biggest roadblock,” said City Manager John Pietig. Though he later cautioned that getting the project done 10 years from putting the first shovel in the ground is one thing, but getting up to that point may be harder.

“Maybe 10 years is not realistic, but isn’t that a good goal?” asked Dicterow, as unsolicited replies of “yes” rose from an audience clearly smitten with the idea.

Dicterow called Eastman’s comments “eye-opening” and argued for delaying the contract with Psomas to explore citywide undergrounding until after meeting with Eastman.

“I just hope, the citizens step up to the bar and let their voices be heard,” said Eastman, who hopes residents will let city officials know the issue is as important to them as he believes it to be. “It’s gotta be the biggest issue in Laguna Beach,” he concluded.

 

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