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Dana Point residents wanting to bury power lines should expect to shoulder the cost

Dana Point residents who want unsightly power poles near their homes removed and utility lines run underground will likely need to pay for the work themselves through special assessment districts. Still, they would get support from the city as they go through the process, officials said.

Recently, a consultant hired to map the city and calculate the cost of a citywide project, estimated it would cost between $310 million and $420 million to pay to underground lines citywide.

About 33% of the city’s power lines still hang above ground; only where developers were required to as part of their project agreement have lines been buried, Mayor Joe Muller said.

For his analysis, the consultant, Jeffrey Cooper, said he based the cost estimates – $1,111 per linear foot for distribution lines and about $1,666 per linear foot for transmission lines – on recent construction bids from SDG&E and what’s been paid in other cities with undergrounding projects.

San Diego created a surcharge on resident utility bills that pays for the city to bury about 20 miles of power lines a year, but most cities in Orange County, including nearby Laguna Beach and Newport Beach, have opted to go the route of creating assessment districts for residents to share the cost of funding the undergrounding work in their neighborhoods. And that is what is being recommended in Dana Point.

The council recently approved Cooper’s suggested guidelines to help homeowners move through the special assessment process.

“The report accomplished a couple of things,” Councilman Mike Frost said. “It provides an initial cost estimate, which provides financial scope, and it gives an updated policy for groups of residents who want to accomplish undergrounding in a specific area.”

A residents group, the Poles and Lines Coalition, or P.A.L, pressuring City Hall to look into undergrounding power lines to improve the aesthetics and safety of their seaside community had prompted the consultant’s work.

The group was founded by Marilyn and Len Gardner, residents of the Lantern District, which overlooks Dana Point Harbor, who said along with other neighbors they are disappointed with the city’s response.

“After waiting a year, it turns out the city and the consultant hired to map and determine a cost for undergrounding utilities are reverting to a half-century-old way of funding the project,” Marilyn Gardner said. “That archaic method burdens homeowners with setting up special assessment districts.”

“We seek to take the burden off the homeowner and place it squarely on the shoulders of people responsible for our infrastructure – namely the government and the utility companies,” she said. “P.A.L.’s only takeaway from this is the price tag of $310 to $421 million. We’re not impressed by that number, because the individual homeowners are not responsible for putting together a grid of utilities in their towns.”

About six years ago, residents in Capistrano Beach also expressed interest in undergrounding utilities.The idea fizzled because few were keen on the high connection costs once the utilities are buried.

Property owners interested in forming a special district need to submit a letter to the city’s Public Works Department suggesting boundaries for the area. If the boundary area is accepted, property owners can then petition others within those boundaries: 60% of property owners in the district need to support the proposed project. If the project makes it on a ballot, it requires 51% approval.

Each homeowner’s assessment may be different. The cost to convert overhead service to underground could vary from $3,000 to $10,000 per property, Cooper said.

Factors making a difference could include the distance from the mainline to the meter; if the lines have to go under a driveway, retaining wall or fence; and ease of access, potential tree removals and easement or right-of-way costs. Also, the cost of reconnecting the homeowners’ meter to the new system were not calculated in Cooper’s initial estimates.

Frost said that getting the report doesn’t mean all efforts by the city to help are off the table.

“We are looking at taking the lead where appropriate to land outside funds or creating better processes to cut costs down,” he said. “Next year’s budget cycle will determine if we dedicate any specific resources, but we will not deviate from our primary responsibility, which is to keep the city on solid financial footing.”

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