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Utility undergrounding raises questions

DEL MAR — The city’s utility undergrounding woes came to a head at the April 15 City Council meeting, with community and council members discussing the venture’s potential cost, duration and priority areas for over three hours.

Efforts to underground the city’s 612 utility poles inched forward, as the city grappled with community concerns over the dangers posed by power lines on the eastern boundary of the city, and new cost estimates on the project.

Recently the city’s hired consultant, Lee & Ro, Inc., projected the undertaking to cost $52 million — about double the city’s original projection.

The council opted to “kick (the item) back” to the Utility Undergrounding Project Advisory Committee (UPAC) to see whether the project’s cost estimates are in need of a second opinion.

The committee was formed about a year ago to explore policy questions related to the project, develop a scope of work and put recommendations to the council for moving the project forward.

Just under 20 residents and Utility Undergrounding Project Advisory Committee (UPAC) members addressed the Del Mar City Council at an Apr. 15 meeting, expressing concerns over the project’s cost and its areas of prioritization. Photo by Lexy Brodt

Council did direct staff to start coordinating the undergrounding of specific parts of Camino Del Mar eligible for Rule 20A funding — sections that are paid for and completed by San Diego Gas & Electric.

“That’s a no brainer,” Mayor Dave Druker said.

Utility undergrounding has been a city priority for years, with voters approving a 1% sales tax hike (Measure Q) in 2016 in order to make hefty city projects like undergrounding a reality.

It is anticipated to take between 12 and 26 years to underground the entire city — which prompts the question: which neighborhoods will go utility pole-free first?

The Utility Undergrounding Project Advisory Committee came up with a methodology for prioritization that puts a 75% weight on an area’s customer density and a 25% weight on fire safety. They identified seven areas, or blocks, in the city and ranked them based on these two factors.

As a result, the committee advised that the city establish two areas for phase one of the project: a “pilot project” area west of Camino Del Mar from about 4th Street to 11th Street, and “Area X.”

“Area X,” which is located along San Dieguito Drive, was identified based on its proximity to potential fire fuel sources. It has been identified by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) as a fire risk exposure area and contains 24 poles.

But several residents along Crest Road said the eastern rim of Del Mar (“Area 4”) should also be a top priority — residents urged the city to put safety concerns above density concerns.

The Crest Canyon area has been identified by Cal Fire as a “very high fire hazard severity zone.” It contains 79 utility poles.

Residents said that taking care of power lines near Crest Road would benefit the entire city — cautioning that if electric power lines were to catch fire, Santa Ana winds might blow embers west and affect neighbors down the hill.

“I’m hopeful we can reprioritize to ensure the Crest rim corridor is protected so all of Del Mar will be protected,” Crest Road resident Nick Frost said.

They also highlighted Crest Road’s importance as an alternative entry and exit route to the city’s downtown area. Several speakers urged prioritizing it in the same category as “Area X.”

“Doing otherwise would be negligent,” resident Bettina Experton said.

Council recommended staff and the committee look at expanding “Area X” to include the rim of the city bordering Crest Canyon. However, council hesitated from honing in on prioritization details before “(wrestling) the numbers to the ground,” Councilman Dwight Worden said.

The project was originally projected to cost about $20 million. But more recent numbers provided by consultant Lee & Ro, Inc. put the final price tag at about $52 million.

The committee and staff have identified different scenarios for funding the project — which is to be limited to Measure Q monies. However, they have not honed in on whether to pursue a “paygo” option of paying in cash as the money becomes available, or long-term financing — which would shorten the duration of the project.

“This whole prioritization conversation is totally different if you’re talking a 10-year or a 20-year project,” Councilwoman Ellie Haviland said.

Several residents — including members of the UPAC — were apprehensive about the cost jump.

“I’m not satisfied,” Committee Chair Dan Quirk said in regard to Lee & Ro’s cost estimate.

According to Quirk, the committee will be addressing funding-related questions at its upcoming meeting on April 18.

Although the city will cover all costs of undergrounding within the public right-of-way, residents will be responsible for undergrounding private laterals.

Residents who previously paid out-of-pocket to fund the undergrounding of utility poles in their neighborhoods will not be reimbursed, due to legal concerns and the potential “significant complexity” of reimbursement, according to council and city staff.

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