Cost of utilities project attacked

DEL MAR — With an overflow crowd watching from the city annex, nearly 50 residents provided input during a Feb. 2 special meeting to discuss undergrounding utility lines in the North Hills area of the city.
Many said they were shocked when they received their assessment notices last month. Those on fixed incomes, such as senior citizens and single parents, said they feared losing their homes and asked council to stop the project immediately.
With only about 15 speakers supporting the proposal, council nonetheless voted 3-0, with Don Mosier recused and Carl Hilliard absent, to move the project forward. A public hearing is set for April 19, and mail ballots will be sent out 45 days prior to that.
“I do think it is good to let it go to a vote … so that you all know what everybody thinks about this,” Councilwoman Crystal Crawford said. “You’re a very strong sampling, of course, from the community but you’re not everybody in the neighborhood.”
Undergrounding utility wires was identified as a high priority in 2002 as part of Del Mar Vision 2020, a long-range planning and integration plan created with public input. Based on methods used for 10 years in Laguna Beach, an area with a topography similar to Del Mar, the city spent 18 months developing an assessment formula.
According to state laws, assessment district costs must be allocated based on special benefits rather than divided equally among parcels.
Del Mar’s first undergrounding project, completed in 2006, buried utility poles and wires at 83 parcels in the Ocean View/Pines area. That project received 76 percent approval from voters.
North Hills was originally formed as three districts in March 2007 with the majority of property owners in favor of undergrounding. The areas were combined last April into one district comprising 321 parcels.
Assessments range from a low of $2,590 to a high of $117,221, with the average at $23,397. If the project receives voter approval, property owners will have 50 days to prepay all or a portion of their assessment. The remaining balance of the $7.5 million project will be funded through bond sales, which will be paid with property taxes. The interest rate will be determined after the prepayment period ends.
The two special benefits identified are an increase in fire safety and improved aesthetics. Some speakers questioned the fire safety issue, noting that downed power lines haven’t caused any major fires in the city.
Fire Marshal Bob Scott said a fire caused by downed power lines is “not an event that occurs frequently,” however, it does hinder the ability to control a blaze because firefighters won’t drive over a downed line until the electric company deems it safe.
During the recent storms a Torrey pine fell on a power line, causing a fire in front of Pete Smith’s house, so Smith said he does believe there is a safety benefit. But he said he thinks the assessments are unfair and he “has a hard time supporting the current proposal.”
Others residents agreed, sympathizing with their neighbors and saying they supported the project initially, but now is not the time to continue given the poor economy.
“It is unconscionable to place huge economic burdens on so many of your residents during these, the most dismal of economic times,” resident Brooke Eisenberg-Pike said.
“How can I vote for something that’s going to hurt my neighbors, even if I had the money?” Charlie Khoury asked.
Del Mar Community Connections developed a support fund to help those on fixed incomes.
Dolores Davis Jamison agreed now may not be the best time financially to underground the wires, “but in a good economy construction costs would be higher,” she said. She described the project as “an investment in our community … we really need to make.”
Citing a 2007 computer analysis by David Ott, the fire chief at the time, Laura DeMarco said if a large fire swept through the area, more than 60 homes — or one every 15 seconds — could burn in less than 15 minutes, quicker than it would take firefighters to reach the home.
Mayor Richard Earnest said the city also received 66 letters and e-mails, some from residents who spoke at the meeting. Of those, 26 opposed the project and 35 supported it.
Ballots will be due by the end of the April 19 hearing. Those postmarked before the meeting, but received after it, will not be counted. The city has seven parcels within the district, however, it could abstain from voting. Council members said they will discuss that before April.
Although the project can continue with 50 percent support, council members can still halt it after the vote. All three said they may be inclined to do so if it passes with only a slight majority.

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