A drone photo of Del Mar coastline. Photo by Marley St. John
Cities Community Community Del Mar Region Solana Beach

Council green lights utility undergrounding design of ‘pilot’ area

DEL MAR — After years of discussion and planning, the Del Mar City Council approved utility undergrounding design for two areas of the city at a Aug. 5 meeting.

Getting over the design hurdle will yield a shovel-ready project, and allow the city to go out to bid for construction. This first phase of the potentially decades-long project would underground just over 20% of the city’s 576 utility poles by the fall of 2022. San Diego Gas & Electric will carry out the design process.

Del Mar has long had citywide utility undergrounding high on its to-do list, to not only beautify the city but remove a potential fire hazard in an area surrounded by brush fuel. Voters approved a 1% sales tax hike in 2016 — called Measure Q — in order to make such city projects a reality.

The prioritization of sections of the city for undergrounding prompted hefty dialogue in April, with residents disagreeing over the proposed methodology.

The city’s Undergrounding Project Advisory Committee (UPAC) originally weighted sections of the city with a methodology placing 75% weight on an area’s customer density and 25% weight on fire safety. Several residents argued that areas near Crest Road — on the eastern edge of the city — should be of a higher concern due to its Cal Fire designation as a “very high fire hazard severity zone.”

As a result, and following discussions with the city’s fire chief, the committee expanded an area previously termed Area X (now “X1A”) to include not only San Dieguito Drive, but an upper portion of Crest Canyon along Crest Road and Avenida Primavera.

Area X1A will be among the first of the city’s seven blocks to be designed for undergrounding by SDG&E, along with Area 1A, which will serve as a “pilot” area. Area 1A extends from 4th Street to 11th Street on the west side of Camino Del Mar, and was prioritized based on density.

Moving forward with a pilot area is intended to help the city better gauge the costs of the entire project, and figure out how they will finance it using Measure Q funds. Measure Q brings in about $2.8 million per year.

“The key thing now is really getting through these first couple projects, then we’ll know a lot more,” said UPAC Co-Chair Jay Thomas, at the early August meeting.

After two different city-hired consultants came up with widely conflicting numbers on the estimated final price tag of undergrounding the city’s 69,000 linear feet of poles and wires, UPAC settled on an estimated range between $32 million and $42 million.

UPAC concluded that design costs for the first two areas could be paid out entirely from Measure Q funds and still leave a net positive balance in the fund by June of 2021. The committee has not yet identified financing tools for the remainder of the project.

The design of the two areas will cost about $2.2 million over the next two fiscal years — which may be incorporated into a future bill if the city goes forward with construction. Design and construction of the two areas is estimated to cost about $12 million.

Councilwoman Sherryl Parks was hesitant to approve the funds for design, citing the project’s “uncertain expenses.”

City Manager Scott Huth responded that the project’s design “is the most logical thing for us to pay for as a city if we’re not proposing to pay for anything else, because we can control where the things are going in our right-of-way working directly with SDG&E.”

Three members of council voted unanimously to move forward with design of the two areas. Only Parks, Terry Gaasterland and Dwight Worden were able to vote on the issue due to conflict of interest concerns, as all council members live within 500 feet of an area impacted by the citywide project.

The three members were randomly chosen to vote, based on the state’s conflict of interest laws. Only Parks, Gaasterland and Worden will be able to weigh in on future undergrounding-related decisions — and the vote will have to be unanimous.

“One council member can unilaterally kill the entire project,” said Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland, who is also a liaison to UPAC.

Gaasterland told The Coast News she is hoping the city can get a formal opinion from the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission on the matter.

However, Gaasterland said she is confident the city will ultimately move forward with trenching.

“I fully respect reluctance, but sometimes you just have to say yes and move forward,” she said of the council’s decision.

The project’s design period will take about 12 to 18 months, after which the city will go out to bid for the trenching work.

Throughout the future undergrounding process, homeowners will be responsible for undergrounding the private laterals on their properties.

Photo Caption: A drone photo of Del Mar coastline. Photo by Marley St. John

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