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Sunset undergrounding to go to a vote

DEL MAR — After nearly three hours of public input from more than two dozen residents mostly opposed to undergrounding utility poles and wires in the Sunset district, City Council — not surprisingly — agreed at the Feb. 22 meeting to move the project forward.
With Mayor Richard Earnest and Councilman Mark Filanc recused, council voted 3-0 to hold a public hearing April 26 and mail ballots to property owners within the district in the northeast section of the city. The events were almost identical to ones that took place three weeks earlier when undergrounding in the North Hills district was discussed.
Speakers opposing the project had issues with the high costs and assessment process, which many felt was flawed and inequitable.
Undergrounding utility equipment was identified as a high priority in 2002 as part of Del Mar Vision 2020, a long-range integration plan created with public input. After researching several models, the city adopted an assessment formula that had been used successfully for 10 years in Laguna Beach, an area with a topography similar to Del Mar.
Assessment districts are governed by state laws that require costs to be allocated according to the benefits received. They cannot be divided equally among the properties involved.
Based on a voter-approved ballot procedure, votes are worth more for parcels with higher assessments. Proposed benefits include increased fire safety, improved views and upgraded electric, cable and television service.
Fire Marshal Bob Scott said a fire caused by downed power lines “doesn’t happen frequently,” but firefighters and all fire captains in the area agree that underground utility wires would be safer. “We’re all on the same page,” Scott said.
Ross Neglia, who walks his dogs under the power lines daily, called them embarrassing, saying they make Del Mar look like a “Third-World country.”
When the Sunset district was formed in April 2007, 94 of the 135 residents submitted petitions supporting the project. Some residents said they have since changed their minds and now feel it should be delayed or stopped because of the poor economy. Many, especially those on fixed incomes, said they could not afford it.
“Del Mar residents who are able to afford undergrounding have the right to pay for that,” Helen Drysdale said. “There are those of us who do not have such luxury, and what funds we do have available to us are to care for us for the remainder of our lives.
“Those of us who cannot afford any additional financial burden at this time of our lives should not be forced to do so,” she said.
Zelda Waxenberg, who said it cost her $10,000 to repair electrical damage caused by a downed power line six years ago, said she empathized with her neighbors who can’t afford the assessments.
“But those who are truly in need will be helped,” she said, referring to a support fund being established through Del Mar Community Connections.
Proponents said if the project is delayed it may never be completed. “This might be the only opportunity we have to do this,” Greg Fehr said.
Councilman Carl Hilliard agreed it may not be the best time to move plans forward, but it’s not the worst time either. “It is the poor economy that has given us the very low construction bids,” he said.
If approved, the project will bury about one mile of utility wires on 135 residences and 10 other parcels, including one owned by the city. Information on if and how the city votes will be made public.
Assessments range from $2,971 to $45,253, with the average at $22,073. If approved by a simple majority, property owners will have 50 days to prepay all or a portion of their assessment. The remainder of the $3.2 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.
Tom Johnson, the financial adviser for the district, said he expects the rate to be about 6 percent.
Based on that assumption, he said the annual cost would be approximately $800, $1,525 or $2,250 on a $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000 bond, respectively.
Contrary to what some speakers claimed, attorney Warren Diven said undergrounding would not increase property taxes, and property owners would not have to pay off the bond if they sold their property before the end of the bond period.
While the majority of speakers at the meeting opposed the project, most of the written correspondence received by the city favored it, Councilman Don Mosier said.
Residents who feel their assessment was calculated unfairly should contact the city. Council members said at least two properties will be reviewed.
Ballots must be received by the end of the April 26 hearing. Those postmarked before the meeting, but received after it, will not be counted.
Although the project can proceed with a simple majority vote, council will have the final say. Mosier and Councilwoman Crystal Crawford said they would not support the project going forward without “a very high level of support.”
“What does that mean?” Crawford asked. “It’s hard to know until we get the votes. … It needs to be a very high number for me, personally.”