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.
“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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