By Allison Jarrell, Special to the Independent
Dozens of residents who attended a city-led open house at the Community Center on Wednesday, April 11, witnessed some heated exchanges between opponents and advocates of the city’s proposal to fund undergrounding of utilitiesin Laguna Beach.
The city held an hour-long public open house to gather community input and further educate the public on the issues driving the move to underground utility poles and lines along Laguna Canyon Road and other evacuation routes, and the funding options the city is considering for the $135 million project.
The city is urging the undergrounding of utility wires due to potential fire danger as 90 percent of the town is in a “very high fire severity zone,” according to CalFire. The city presented data that backed up this concern, citing at least six firesover 11 years in Laguna Beach “caused by power lines and utility equipment.” The city also points to state data showing 58 vehicle collisions in the same time frame on Laguna Canyon Road involving utility poles.
In order to address these public safety concerns, the city is examining ways to fund the undergrounding of its utilities, including a 1-cent sales tax that would cover roughly $80 million, existing city funds including Measure LL funds and street lighting funds, and a general obligation bond covering about $35 million. The latter option is estimated to cost homeowners about $11 per $100,000 of assessed property value annually.
While the majority of residents perused the informational poster boards peacefully, some shouting erupted. Attorney Jennifer Welsh Zeiter, who has said she’s considering running for City Council, yelled out repeatedly that the city’s open house was an illegal use of taxpayer funds by advocating for a ballot measure. Welsh Zeiter co-founded the group S.T.O.P.(Stop Taxing Our Property), which opposes the city’s proposal to tax residents to help pay to bury the wires and remove the utility poles. “When you have a city advocating for its own tax measure, it adversely affects the integrity of the electoral process,” she said.
Welsh Zeiter’s yelling provoked shouting by others, who questioned her authority on thesubject. At some point, several uniformed officers arrived. In an interview afterwards, Welsh Zeiter said she felt police were attempting to intimidate her in order to suppress her opposition to a city-backed initiative.
Welsh Zeiter said the watch commander told her police Chief Laura Farinella had requested officers respond to a disturbing the peace call at the meeting.
Resident Tom Gibbs of the grassroots organization Underground Laguna Nowsaid opposition to proposed financing forundergrounding is premature.
“It hasn’t even been determined whether there’s going to be property tax increases,” Gibbs said. He added that if votersapprove a property tax, the preliminary estimate is that it would add no more than $250 per year to property tax bills. “It’s a small price to pay for safety,” Gibbs said.
When asked about funding options for the undergrounding, City Council member Bob Whalen, a vocal advocate of the project, said there may be a way to get it done with just a sales tax hike and existing city funds.
“We listen, we take feedback from people, and we’ve heard some support and some opposition for the property tax, so we’re going to have to take all that into account,” Whalen said.
Shohreh Dupuis, assistant city manager and director of public works, said a second surveyregarding funding options for the undergrounding of evacuation routes in town will be released soon.
The City Council is tentatively slated to review the results of that second survey and discuss next steps at its May 22 meeting. If the Council decides to move forward with pursuing a ballot initiative, adoption of a ballot measure would tentatively be considered on June 26.