In a bid to lower fire risk by ridding the city of overhead utility power lines, the Laguna Beach City Council unanimously approved Tuesday, Nov. 15, a new ordinance requiring utilities to install new or replacement infrastructure below ground.
Officials from the two electric utilities that serve Laguna both voiced opposition to the local measure, which they contend illegally conflicts with the regulatory authority granted to the Public Utilities Commission. “The intent is noble, but going around the process is highly unlikely to proceed,” testified Pedro Villegas, of San Diego Gas & Electric, which serves 2,000 of Laguna’s 13,000 customers.
The council was unmoved and voted 3-0, with Toni Iseman and Kelly Boyd absent. Before the measure receives a second reading, Council member Bob Whalen urged utility officials to step up talks with city staff.
“You should care about the policy question and the safety of people here,” Mayor Steve Dicterow scolded the representatives. “I’m disappointed I didn’t hear that,” he said.
Laguna Beach has experienced four fires sparked by utility lines in the last 10 years, the most recent July 3, 2015. Burying the 181 poles carrying power and cable lines along Laguna Canyon Road is a top City Council priority.
“This doesn’t come out of the blue,” said Whalen, who personally spent a fruitless year pressing top-level Edison and SDG&E managers to collaborate on a citywide cost-sharing project to underground distribution lines, “really to no avail,” he recounted.
Whalen had no better success with legislation aimed at forcing the PUC to adopt updated maps where Laguna is categorized as high fire-risk and thus eligible for fire-risk mitigation by utility companies. The governor vetoed the bill in September.
The ordinance, initially endorsed by the council at a special meeting in March, “is a test of our seriousness and resolve in dealing with a threat to our community,” said Council member Rob Zur Schmiede. “We took it to the highest levels of management,” he said, in reference to attempts to negotiate with utility officials. “We’ve gotten nowhere.”
Undergrounding advocates Arnold Hano and Matt Lawson testified in support for the measure.
“The longer we wait on this, the more dangerous it becomes,” Hano said.
“We have billions of dollars of property at risk,” Lawson said. “We must do it.”
While Villegas contended the city ordinance acts to “pre-empt” state regulations, Mayor Steve Dicterow said the city’s special counsel on the matter identified comparable measures in 11 other jurisdictions. They include Huntington Beach and Rolling Hills Estates along with nine other Northern California communities, City Attorney Phil Kohn said later. None have been challenged in court, he said.
Edison spokesman David Song said the ordinance lacks clarity over whether it will apply to transmission towers, among other points that are inconsistent with state regulations.
Laguna’s ordinance, if enacted, would require burying any new, replaced or relocated utility infrastructure, including cable lines. It allows an exemption for projects with three or fewer poles. Just one upgrade project in the city within the last year would have met the criteria, said Shohreh Dupuis, the city’s public works director.
The ordinance’s main objective is to require Edison to underground poles now in the right-of-way along Laguna Canyon Road as they are displaced when a city-Caltrans project gets underway that will add bike and pedestrian walkways, Whalen said in a later interview.
As a practical matter, the ordinance will also require utilities to provide advance notice of installation changes, he said. That will allow staff to at least raise objections over the location and size of poles before installations take place. “They haven’t been cooperative,” he said.
The ordinance omits mention of cost responsibilities over complying with the regulation.
Over the years and in a piecemeal fashion, utility poles have been buried that serve about half the town’s customers through mostly self-funded neighborhood assessment districts and some city projects, according to a special city report presented March 22.
Undergrounding the remainder of Laguna Canyon Road between El Toro Road and downtown, involving 181 poles including transmission lines, is expected to cost $90 million alone, the report says. A citywide effort to extract remaining utility poles could cost $180 million, the report said.
Revenue from a ballot measure approved by voters last week to increase taxes hotel guests pay was one of several funding methods suggested to continue undergrounding projects, the report said.
A recent $1.3 million project at the Big Bend curve in Laguna Canyon was selected to reduce fire risks and due to the volume of vehicle collisions with poles, City Manager John Pietig said in September, when 18 poles were removed.