By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
“We have got to start the process and start moving, or we will all be here in our wheelchairs waiting for something to get done.”
And with that from Mayor Pro tem Kelly Boyd, the Laguna Beach City Council approved a detailed plan Tuesday that officially starts a long-awaited initiative to bury utility poles underground on Laguna Canyon Road and several streets that serve as evacuation routes.
“This is a public safety issue,” Mayor Toni Iseman said. “It is a safety issue for the tourists; it’s not just for the residents of Laguna. It is for the safety of all the people who are here.”
Assistant City Manager Shohreh Dupuis laid out nine strategies to remove unsightly utility poles from city streets and along Laguna Canyon Road as well as pursuing pedestrian, bicycle and roadway safety improvements for the canyon road.
Conceiving a master plan provides suggests how roads will look with future improvements and cost estimates necessary to seek grant funding from agencies such as Caltrans or to work with the utility companies, she said.
Over the next four years, the city will devote $6 million to the development of an incentive program to contribute to funding for undergrounding of utilities along Laguna Canyon Road and the city’s major evacuation routes and access routes. Those routes include Coast Highway, Bluebird Canyon Road, Thalia Street, Upper Temple Hills Drive, Glenneyre Street, Monterey Street and Virginia Way and cumulatively would cost $19 million to undertake, the report says.
Currently, seven utility undergrounding assessment districts are underway. In smaller districts property owners bear larger individual assessments, ranging from $32,000 to $66,000, says a city report.
Dupuis says in addition to the $1 million allocated from the newly approved bed tax, Measure LL, for undergrounding, an additional $700,000 can be used from the city’s streetlight fund, but that won’t begin to cover the costs of undergrounding the entire city.
“Even with all of the undergrounding assessment districts, there are still 6,000 parcels left in the city with overhead poles surrounding the parcels,” Dupuis said. “In order to really undertake a citywide undergrounding effort it would require a more city-wide special tax district or some kind of general obligation bond to provide sufficient funding to underground all of those 6,000 parcels.”
Based on the $1.7 million that can be devoted annually to the project, the city could issue debt to generate $25 to $30 million, the staff report says. Any additional tax measures will require approval through a community vote and a general obligation bond would require legislation.
Another revenue generating option approved for exploration is known as Community Choice Aggregation. That’s when the city purchases its own electricity, typically at a savings of 1-3%, reducing costs and providing more green power to residents.
“There are a few northern California cities that have implemented this process and seen cost savings,” Dupuis said.
In Laguna Canyon, the breakdown of undergrounding from downtown to Big Bend will involve removal of 85 poles over 7,000 feet at an estimated total cost per-mile range of $20-23 million.
The city is not just looking at that stretch, and intends to underground all Laguna Canyon Road distribution and transmission lines. From Big Bend to El Toro Road are another 81 poles and an estimated $19 million to remove.
Negotiating an agreement between the city and Caltrans to develop a Laguna Canyon Road Master Plan is slated to cost $500,000 over two years. Southern California Edison will start preliminary engineering of the undergrounding design at a cost estimated at $1.5 million. The estimated time from design to construction is 8.5 years.
“Development of the Laguna Canyon Master Plan and initiating the preliminary engineering of the undergrounding of overhead wires and poles is a major step,” Dupuis said.
Legal fees for the fire mapping process and development of the city’s undergrounding ordinance will also take $450,000 over four years, and could also be used for future legislative efforts, the staff report says. An undergrounding manager will be hired at an estimated salary of $230,000 a year, and the city will assess existing utility poles and their fire risk due to proximity to traffic and trees, Dupuis said. That would happen within the next year at a cost of $200,000.
“As I think about this problem, it’s not just fire risk,” said council member Bob Whalen. “Another possibility is an earthquake that causes a tree to fall, gas ruptured, there can be fires. It’s an unnecessary risk. It’s a risk that we as a community can afford it, we have the wherewithal to do it.”
Some residents urged the council to put off a decision for more time to absorb the strategy.
Council member Rob Zur Schmeide said the city has waited long enough.
“I want to get going on this. We have a lot of steps to take over the next few years,” Zur Schmeide said.
Peter Stevenson, who lived through the Laguna Beach fire of 1993, agreed that the time is right for an initiative that affects the entire community. “The monies that are spent will save lives,” he said.
Widening Laguna Canyon Road between El Toro Road and state Route 73 is currently in development with plans for an expanded shoulder to provide bike and walking access, according to Dupuis’ report. It said the $39 million cost is being shared between the county and Caltrans. Dupuis said construction would start in the fall of 2020 and be done by 2023, adding that $7 million for drainage systems there complicate the undergrounding of 18 poles in that vicinity.
With the vote to move forward, city staff will first bring back an undergrounding ordinance for the council to review Feb. 7 with input from utility companies.
Whalen put all of the zeros associated with the cost of this project in perspective.
“If you think of the value of the property in the community, and the cost of undergrounding, you are talking about 1% of the value of the real property in this community,” Whalen said. “So the question is, would you be willing to invest the cost of 1% of your property to eliminate the threat of losing your entire home? Most would say yes. It is really a smart investment.”