‘I want accountability’: La Jolla residents seek answers about utility undergrounding delays
A neighborhood in the Muirlands area has been waiting since 2014 to have power lines placed underground, and now it appears nothing will happen until at least 2027.
It’s been almost a decade since residents of the Muirlands area of La Jolla, specifically near Avenida Chamnez, were told their neighborhood’s power lines would be put underground. But the lines are still overhead, and residents want answers.
“I want accountability,” Phil Ginsburg said.
In 2014, he and other residents were told by representatives of the city of San Diego and San Diego Gas & Electric that utilities in that area — part of a block known as La Jolla 13 — would be undergrounded “soon.” But the schedule has varied, with key dates ranging from 2018 to 2023 and now beyond.
Starting in 2014, Ginsburg, neighbor Russ Ries and others looked at the city website dedicated to undergrounding and found that their neighborhood was scheduled for the work in 2023. Hoping for something quicker, they pleaded their case with city leaders.
In 2018, during Barbara Bry’s tenure as the City Council member for District 1, which includes La Jolla, an SDG&E five-year implementation plan was revised with a jostled schedule.
“It just so happened that the allocation for our area was moved to 2018, which was great,” Ries said. “We had some direction as to where we were going.”
But current Councilman Joe LaCava says words like “allocation” can be misleading and imply that progress is further along than it is.
“The terminology is confusing,” LaCava said. “I hear ‘allocated’ and I think one thing, but for this process it means something different. We are still looking at projects that were ‘allocated’ in 2014 and 2015 that have made little progress. There is a backlog that La Jolla 13 is a part of, but other neighborhoods in La Jolla, District 1 and San Diego are wondering when they are next.”
During the June 22 meeting of the City Council’s Environment Committee, Chelsea Klaseus — deputy director of the right-of-way management division in the San Diego Transportation Department, which includes the utility undergrounding program — said the allocation phase of undergrounding allows for a list of projects to go before the council “and give members a chance to review and approve them.” But she said “allocated projects do not have dedicated funding or fixed timelines.”
Frustrated by what they consider a lack of clarity and action, residents of Avenida Chamnez have kept in constant communication with applicable city departments over the past five years.
“There doesn’t seem to be any accountability,” resident Bob Burkett said. “The city doesn’t have that organizational accountability. The right design can enhance a neighborhood … and things can be done inexpensively that add to quality of life. Why do we like those little villages on the Italian coast? They are not sophisticated ... but they have a charm to them. So when we see things like these power lines, they take away from the charm, so take them down.”
Ries added that “no one seems to be monitoring whether the city is meeting the schedule or not.”
Undergrounding projects in some parts of La Jolla are progressing. The Block 1J Phase 1 project currently is placing utility lines underground from La Jolla Shores Drive west to the ocean and from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography south to Avenida de la Playa.
Block 1J Phase 2, including the area east of La Jolla Shores Drive from Scripps Oceanography south to Nautilus Street, was completed in June.
A project to place power lines underground up Mount Soledad along Via Capri is expected to be finished by early next year.
Following the money
LaCava said the process in which undergrounding projects are decided and executed has changed dramatically in the past few years, creating a more nebulous schedule.
Among the factors, LaCava said, are the new franchise agreement the city and SDG&E entered in 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic putting a pause on construction projects and a “dramatic increase” in the cost of construction.
“Utility undergrounding operates on a simple business,” LaCava said. “Money comes in based on the [3.35 percent] surcharge that is assessed on [SDG&E] ratepayers, and then we can see how much money we have and how many projects we can book. The time in which the franchise agreement was being negotiated [and no undergrounding was taking place] allowed that account to accrue funds. But with that, the cost of construction has gone up, so we have to keep up with that.”
Klaseus said funding available for undergrounding from the surcharge was “hovering around $280 million” as of the beginning of the 2023-24 fiscal year July 1, but between existing and proposed projects, “we have approximately $520 million in payment obligations.”
“The city will be focused on finding ways to sustainably manage this found balance and look for opportunities for cost savings, such as more opportunities for joint projects,” Klaseus said, along with providing community outreach and newsletters with status updates on projects.
But Ginsburg is concerned about whether the millions in the account are being spent appropriately.
“My belief is the money is being collected and used to cover overhead at the city,” he said. “We have asked for the accounting statements of what was collected and what was spent from that account. If they had used the money appropriately, they would have shown us. As a city getting a tax assessed against us, I think we are entitled to it.”
Ries said the city replied to the request for accounting statements with a 2013 audit report. “I just laughed,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything that reflected expenses from 2013 to now.”
LaCava denied that the money is being spent inappropriately, saying “the surcharge money goes into a lockbox that is used only for undergrounding of electric lines, for adding streetlights and [disabled-accessible] ramps at corners as part of the project. That is all it is used for. It is not being used for anything else.”
Change of plans
Further complicating the scheduling of La Jolla undergrounding, the city this year revised its priority system to include a two-item checklist: whether an area is underserved — in what the city calls a community of concern — and whether there is a fire risk associated with the lines remaining above ground. While the La Jolla 13 block is considered to have a fire risk due to its proximity to a canyon, it is not in a community of concern.
The city also shifted from the 50-year plan previously in place and is now looking ahead in rolling five-year increments.
The current five-year outlook that started with 2022 doesn’t have La Jolla 13 on it, LaCava said. Thus, residents shouldn’t expect anything before 2027.
“I understand there is a lot of ongoing frustration,” LaCava said. “We still have the structural problems with undergrounding, including promises that were made that shouldn’t have been made. We are continuing to work with the communities that have been waiting, but I understand the resident frustration. It is a frustration of mine as well.” ◆
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