Utilities Contest Rules on Overhead Lines


By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent

Two major Southern California utilities companies have sued the city of Laguna Beach over its new utility undergrounding ordinance, saying it violates both state and federal law.

San Diego Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison filed the complaints in federal court Wednesday in Santa Ana. They allege the city’s undergrounding ordinance is unconstitutional because it conflicts with the franchise agreements the city has already established with the utilities, conflicts with the California Public Utilities Commission’s fairness rules for customer costs, and impedes safety, utility and maintenance work in the city.

City officials continue to press utilities to underground their overhead lines, which routinely are pulled down to block and congest Laguna Canyon and spark occasional fires. Photo courtesy of the city of Laguna Beach.
City officials continue to press utilities to underground their overhead lines, which routinely are pulled down to block and congest Laguna Canyon and spark occasional fires. Photo courtesy of the city of Laguna Beach.

“The California Public Utilities Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over the design of SCE’s electric systems,” said Edison spokesman David Song. “Laguna Beach’s ordinance aims to skirt the jurisdiction of the commission and establish an unsustainable approach to planning and funding electric infrastructure.”

On March 28 the Laguna Beach City Council adopted the long discussed utility undergrounding ordinance, requiring below-ground burial of new and replacement lines by utilities in the city. Undergrounding of utilities along Laguna Canyon Road and the city’s major evacuation routes cumulatively would cost $19 million. Burying the 181 poles carrying power and cable lines along the major arterial has been a top City Council priority.

Currently, seven utility undergrounding assessment districts are already underway in neighborhoods, but these are self-financed with bond debt by property owners that pay for the burial of overhead lines and removal of poles. City officials allocated $1 million for undergrounding from the Measure LL bed tax hike and an additional $700,000 that can be used from the city’s streetlight fund, but that won’t begin to cover the costs of undergrounding utility lines citywide.

“It is disappointing that the utilities continue to resist our efforts to improve public safety here in the city,” said City Council member Bob Whalen. “Rather than working with us to reduce the risk of fire and traffic accidents, they continue to fight us at every turn in Sacramento, at the Public Utilities Commission and now in court.”

Sparking utility lines ignited several recent blazes in the last decade, including a 2015 fire in Laguna Canyon on a Saturday amid peak tourist season that caused congestion miles away and panicked residents. Whalen spent a fruitless year attempting to negotiate with Edison and pressing for a PUC policy change in high-risk fire areas.

The lawsuits say enforcement of the ordinance would likely lead to service interruptions and safety hazards if SCE were prevented from doing timely maintenance, repairs, and in-kind replacements of its existing overhead electric lines and poles. They also outline how much undergrounding of utilities will cost. Edison says the average cost of construction of a new overhead distribution system is about $100 per foot, and the average cost of construction of a new underground distribution system ranges from about $500 to $1,000 per foot. The utility says customers will pay for the increase.

“If the ordinance is allowed to move forward, all SCE customers — the great majority of whom reside in less-affluent areas than Laguna Beach — will be required to shoulder the burden of the substantial sums it will cost to comply with the ordinance,” said Song.

Laguna Beach City Attorney Phil Kohn says the city has not yet been served with the lawsuit, which could take up to 90 days from filing. Representatives of the utilities raised similar objections during hearings about the ordinance, he said, noting that the city retained special legal counsel that advised city officials they “were proceeding in an appropriate way.”

SDG&E’s complaint accuses the city of circumventing California law and the CPUC’s decision-making authority. The CUPC’s Tariff Rule 20 establishes the circumstances when a utility will replace existing overhead electric facilities with underground electric facilities and who will bear the costs of the replacement. SDG&E says it cannot comply both with the city’s undergrounding ordinance and the CPUC’s decisions, orders, and tariffs because they are fundamentally inconsistent.

“A recent ordinance adopted by the city of Laguna Beach could impact the safety and reliability of our electric service, and result in higher costs for all of our customers,” said SDG&E spokeswoman Colleen Windsor.

Edison’s complaint says that based on a count of meters, less than a quarter of 1 percent of its customers are located in Laguna Beach, and that the ordinance would shift the costs of undergrounding in the city to customers elsewhere.

“A single, local jurisdiction will be legislating the energy costs of region-wide customers,“ Song said.

Whalen is unmoved. “With or without their cooperation we will continue to advance our efforts to underground utilities in Laguna and enhance the public safety of our neighbors and visitors,” he said.


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  1. During one of the big storms this winter, a utility pole next to our driveway came down and smashed my car. There were live wires in my front yard as a result and the fire department insisted on evacuating me (I was home at the time). These poles are quite dangerous and I would love to see our yrilities under grounded.

  2. Laguna Beach and the city budget needs more income for infrastructure spending.
    When the utilities are placed underground around privately owned land a bond is drawn up and a tax agreed upon for the residence to pay over time.

    If the City of Laguna Beach would think of other investment’s by developing other natural resources with an archetype of a small footprint to balance the justification the existence of open natural resources like the canyons and the beaches.

    A municipal pier for example, would , without the stereo typical design flaws associated with past structure or placement. There are multiple studies done over decades that support man made structures improving and supporting local species of flora and fauna.
    Before the financial community and the residences heads are under it.. they need to take a closer look at what can be built over it.

    The residence need to understand what corporations already know , the utilities and the city are for now separate corporations . For example some utilities are anchored so deep in certain communities that they control multiple utilities.

  3. There’s much more to this story; undergrounding has already been paid for. SGE, Laguna Beach and one more city made it possible and the three cities together know this and pray some bored reader (me) do not know. But I know and the mystery city prays I don’t come forward.

  4. STOP THE FRAUD !!! and the negligent and or reckless CAMPAIGN OF MISINFORMATION !!!

    The scheme by the City of Laguna Beach to compel individual property owners to permit their fee simple, absolute real estate interests to be used for purposes of loan to value analysis to finance the under-grounding of utility equipment and improvements which the individual owners DO NOT OWN and which the City of Laguna Beach and its sworn elected official have NO JURISDICTION and NO AUTHORITY over is just that – a scheme.

    Better known as a scheme to defraud [see 18 USC 1341, et seq. and or 18 USC 513-514).

    This has gone on for years , under the purported guise of “public safety” and or “general enhancement and modernization”, but the correct and true material fact IS that repairs, maintenance, replacement and or undergrounding of utilities is already provided for (in terms of funding) by one of two (2) documented ways:

    #1) SDG& E monthly utility bills – see the part (line items) allocated to “Distribution” and “Transmission” —don’t believe it, call SDG&E and ask the customer service reps. to explain your monthly bill to you;

    [FYI***note***”Distribution and Transmission fees which are a percentage (%) or pro-rata portion of each monthly SDG&E utility bill, are approximate fifty (50%) percent of each of your monthly utility charges***]


    #2) General Fund Taxes – see Measure LL Ballot Initiative Fall 2016 municipal election (ie. Ballot Measure text – read it) and also “Fiscal Analysis” prepared and signed by John P. (City Manager) and “Impartial Analysis” prepared and signed by Philip K. (City Manager), respectively, and each inducing support for Measure LL.

    Why are any individual property owners being requested, induced, and or compelled (let alone permitted) by the City of Laguna Beach and its public employees and elected sworn public officials to pay to underground public utility equipment and improvements at the expense of private property owners – and intended beneficiaries of the public services of the City of Laguna Beach – when in fact the utility poles, wires, transformers, etc. do not belong to the City of Laguna Beach, nor the individual property owners, and are not the legal responsibility of the City and or property owners to maintain, repair and or replace?

    It’s a scheme – also known as a fraud – and this has gone on far to long while certain party(ies) have profited handsomely and others have suffered financial loss as as result of being duped and mislead into believe private property owners should foot the bill for something that the City has deemed a “general fund” expense liability, and with the utility companies are charging each account separately each and every month on utility bills to provide funding for.

    The monthly, annual, and any pre or post storm inspection, repair and maintenance services, and any purported “fire” or “emergency” related services, as pertaining to the utility poles and wires, are the responsibility and duty and an attendance financial expense of the utility companies.

    That means the City of Laguna Beach and the individual residents of private property interests located in the City of Laguna Beach (County of Orange) should keep their hands off of these utility owned facilities and improvements – – – and use (appropriate) public moneys [see Sections 799, 424-426 and 503-504, et seq. of the California Penal Code only for lawful and authorized purposes – not to squander and or misappropriate on utility equipment not belonging to the private property owners or the City of Laguna Beach.

    Like the late Nancy Reagan said years ago, “Just say NO !”


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