Dana Point has been considering undergrounding its utility wires for aesthetic purposes in certain areas of the city, which a staff report says could cost about $5.7 million.
Editors’ Note: This dispatch is part of the Voice of OC Youth Media program, working with student journalists to cover public policy issues across Orange County. If you would like to submit your own student media project related to Orange County civics or if you have any response to this work, contact Digital Editor Sonya Quick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Undergrounding the wires in Dana Point, a city incorporated in 1989, has been on the radar of city officials for a couple of decades and debated off and on. City officials have been studying the best way to fund the effort.
Matthew Sinacori, the director of public works and city engineer, in a presentation to the City Council in October, said among the advantages of undergrounding were the “aesthetic benefit, benefit to the general public” and “civic, recreation or scenic benefit.”
Other Orange County cities have prioritized undergrounding overhead wires in recent years.
Laguna Beach, incorporated in 1927, focused on undergrounding in July 2017 when a tree branch fell, bringing down utility wires and starting a fire. The blaze burned between 10 and 15 acres, which is when the discussion of undergrounding became serious.
Laguna Beach has three different categories for undergrounding: assessment districts, underground utility districts and City Council districts, according to Wade Brown, the city’s undergrounding program manager.
Assessment districts consist of residents who form districts and agree to tax themselves to fund the undergrounding. Underground utility districts form when the City Council creates a district and pays for the undergrounding fully out of the city budget. The last district is formed based on the Rule 20A funding, a state program where credits from utility companies are assigned to each city and the council decides how to use the credits, Brown said.
While over half of Laguna Beach has achieved undergrounding with the assessment districts, the council abides by a majority process, Brown said. The majority process works by having residents vote. If 50% vote in favor of undergrounding in their district, the council can move forward. However, if 50% vote against undergrounding in their district, the council cannot proceed.
“It’s always a divisive process,” said Brown. “Some people feel like they don’t want to pay for it for any reason. But then we have people that will pay for it at any cost.”
Although Dana Point’s staff report from October includes the Rule 20A program implementation, it does not have a clear funding plan cited. The report does note that as of Dec. 31, 2018, utility company San Diego Gas & Electric “has approximately $1.8 million in credits available to Dana Point.” However, the report also states that the “cost of underground projects are high, and even a small one would exceed the current credit available to Dana Point.”
When asked for comment, Sinacori referred to the report, which also states there are different funding options that will be voted on by “beneficiaries/assessed property owners.” The report says regardless of what funding source is used, “property owners are responsible for paying to connect individual properties to the new underground electric system.”
Older cities, like Anaheim, founded in 1857, have crafted plans for funding undergrounding projects that date years back.
“Safety is always first,” said city spokesman Mike Lyster. Safety was the number one priority for Anaheim to begin undergrounding in 1990. Now, the city has undergrounded 133 circuit miles, with 107 miles left to go and a projected completion date of 2040.
Anaheim has its own public utilities department and thus distributes its own water and power, a fact that makes it easier for costs to be absorbed, Lyster said.
In Anaheim, the city spends a yearly average of $14 million on undergrounding, according to the city’s “Underground Conversion Fact Sheet.” The city tacks on between $2 and $4 on residents’ and local companies’ utility bills to cover the cost.
Generally, undergrounding “has been very well received,” Lyster said. “We get more requests of people asking when we’re going to get to their street to underground than we do complaints about the cost or the construction.”
Lyster discussed how undergrounding was essential to East Anaheim’s development, as it is home to part of the 241 toll road that extends through much wildlife and brush. Due to a high fire hazard, 98% of this area has been undergrounded.
Other cities prioritize aesthetic reasons for undergrounding. Irvine was incorporated in 1971, 18 years prior to Dana Point. However, Irvine is a fully undergrounded city.
Dana Point has not identified a clear path on how to fund undergrounding in parts of the city, but during the October City Council meeting the costs discussed hovered around $5 million.
Sinacori, the director of public works, assured the council that residents can find information on undergrounding through the city’s website. When asked for comment on any progress on funding plans and moving forward, Sinacori only offered the information that was available on the website and in a city staff report.