Canyon Crash Spurs Undergrounding Advocates

Critics hope Sunday's collision will spur undergrounding of utilities in Laguna Canyon. Springing into action after an unexpected power outage last weekend, a Pacific Marine Mammal Center board member managed to get a generator operating to prevent thousands of pounds of fish in the center’s freezers from defrosting.

The 30-hour long outage only affected one business, according to a Southern California Edison spokesperson. But homes, businesses and motorists throughout Laguna Canyon suffered from snarled traffic for hours, thanks to a driver who plowed into a utility pole early Sunday, crippling, but not completely downing it. She was later arrested for suspicion of drunkenness, according to police.

Now, the incident has reignited community concerns by some, who are pressing city officials to remove above ground utility lines to lessen fire risk along the heavily used roadway where collisions with utility poles is not an uncommon experience.

“Laguna Canyon is very fragile and very susceptible to fire caused by a single spark,” said Mary Ferguson in an email to fellow PMMC board members and city officials.

“To be without power is not only disruptive but creates a dangerous situation for many along the canyon,” added Jonathan Burke, president of Laguna College of Art and Design, whose campus now sprawls across multiple buildings along the canyon. He also addressed the entire council in his message.

“I realize the complexity, size of the project and cost of undergrounding would be substantial, but I urge the City Council to go forward and work with SCE to install an undergrounding system. Besides the safety reasons the aesthetic improvement would be dramatic,” he said.

According to local Christopher Reed, Sunday’s incident was a near miss for a citywide power outage. “It was a very close call,” said Reed, noting that if the pole had broken altogether, it would have severed a transmission line to the substation opposite the Sawdust Festival, potentially leaving much of the city in the dark, he said.

This time, only the marine mammals suffered, with water that lacked filtration. Fortunately, because of heroic efforts to obtain a generator and then refuel it during the night, “PMMC did not lose any fish but easily could have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of fish had the power outage been longer,” said Ferguson, noting that fire, not business losses, is her primary concern.

Last September’s brush fire next to the Laguna Terrace mobile home park may be a case in point. Witnesses claimed to see smoke emanating from a downed utility pole on the singed hillside just north of the park. And while Southern California Edison did not officially accept any blame for the incident, the company did reimburse the city for all costs related to the fire, said City Manager John Pietig.

“In my opinion, Laguna Canyon power lines should be undergrounded first as they pose the largest risk to lives and property, and to our town,” said Ferguson.

The City Council is already pressing ahead on the issue, which for years had been left for individual neighborhoods to pursue by creating assessment districts. The Council voted to hire consultants to assess citywide undergrounding options and figure out how to expedite the process with staff and utilities.

About 40 percent of the city’s meters are currently underground, as the result of individual property owners creating assessment districts to underwrite years-long efforts to rid themselves of utility poles in order to improve neighborhood safety and aesthetics. But the majority of the city’s neighborhoods, Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road still run the risk of blocked access and power outages due to downed lines, not to mention the fire hazard posed by sparks from compromised lines.

The design process for undergrounding poles in the Big Bend area of Laguna Canyon Road is already underway, said Public Works Director Steve May. A similar joint project with the county is in the works along Laguna Canyon Road from El Toro to the 73 toll road, May said, though Caltrans opposes transmission lines under highways.

With no projects for the remainder of Laguna Canyon Road, Pietig called the Council’s action to hire undergrounding consultants “a significant step forward” in the process.

While undergrounding is clearly a long-term project, Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson said in support of the measure, “we have to start planning for it now, since public safety is our number one priority.”

–Andrea Adelson contributed to the story

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