By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
About 50 Woods Cove residents cheered for the Laguna Beach City Council’s vote Tuesday to spend another $300,000 to move forward with engineering designs to underground utility lines in their neighborhood.
Since neighborhood organizers successfully petitioned 60 percent of the 335-parcel district in 2014, the city has already spent about $669,000 to prepare engineering designs with Southern California Edison, Cox Communications, and Frontier. At that time, each property owner in support of the project had to front $500 for the designs.
Karen Klammer, a community organizer for Woods Cove, said she and her neighbors were relieved that the City Council agreed to spend the additional $300,000 after hearing there is a strong chance that a majority of residents of the proposed utility assessment district would agree to tax themselves.
“We’re very optimistic that this is going to happen,” Klammer said.
The biggest unanswered question remaining for Woods Cove is how much undergrounding utility lines will cost each homeowner. The answer has been elusive because it will largely depend on the special benefits they receive, which is partly based on the number of utility poles removed near their home.
Wade Brown, undergrounding program manager, said the Woods Cove project has been delayed while they waited for funds to roll in from sales tax initiatives Measure LL and Measure P—the later failed to get the necessary votes in November 2018. Threats of litigation over an adjacent utility assessment district in the area of Agate and Glenneyre streets have also thrown off assumptions used by engineers for the Woods Cove project, forcing a redesign of that utility assessment district
When the initial petition was conducted in 2014, city staffers estimated the assessments would range between $6,000 and $45,000. Property owners were also quoted for their homes’ private connections to future underground utilities, estimated at that time to cost between $3,000 and $5,000.
However, estimated costs for Woods Cover property owners have dramatically gone up based on the final bills from other utility districts in Laguna Beach. The average assessment is now estimated at $43,000 but could be as high as $100,000 for some property owners. Private utility connections are now estimated to cost between $5,000 and $15,000.
Proponents of undergrounding utility lines often argue that the practice improves property values, but the benefits run deeper than simply eliminating wires and other electrical components from view. Firefighters in Paradise used tractors to clear downed utility lines from roads used for evacuations during the Camp Fire.
Klammer said the threat to lives and property opposed by utility lines wasn’t center stage during the 2014 petition in Woods Cove but has recently added new urgency.
“The way [wildfire] affected us is, there are people who didn’t think it was so important five years ago, but now they realize there is a huge safety factor involved as well,” Klammer said.
She added that SCE’s recent efforts to prevent wires from being damaged by tree limbs has directed landscapers to cut tree limbs 12 feet back from electrical facilities. Unfortunately, this has left many trees cropped in a sorry state that is impacting the character of Woods Cove.
“The trees are part of what makes the neighborhood the way it is,” she said.
Pearl Street resident Greg Mech said he moved to Woods Cove three and a half years ago, after the initial undergrounding petition, and quickly learned how important the project was to his neighbors.
‘I think we have an incredible opportunity to be great partners, to inform, educate, and encourage, not browbeat anybody,” he said. “I think the sooner we can get this done and get answers, the more successful the project will be.”
Mayor Bob Whalen supported allocating the additional $300,000 to move forward with designing the utility assessment district because he believes it’s critical to keeping evacuation routes like Glenneyre and Diamond streets open during a natural disaster.
“I think the room knows how I feel about undergrounding,” he said. “It was obviously very disappointing to me when we couldn’t pass Measure P.”
City staffers estimate it will take SCE about six months to redesign the engineer plans for Woods Cove, which could be reviewed by the Design Review Committee as early as this December, according to a staff report.