Powering Down: City to underground Muirlands utility lines

Residents learn at Rec Center pre-design forum: first phase will begin with street trenching in mid-2017

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Those unsightly utility boxes sprouting like mechanical toadstools from people’s front yards. Nobody wants them on their property, but even along Rodeo Drive — the one near La Jolla’s upper Muirlands area — the boxes are a necessary evil.

And unless residents of lower Muirlands prefer keeping overhead power lines and poles that mar canyon vistas and ocean views, they must decide on a minimally egregious location for such boxes.

This was the topic when the City of San Diego held a utilities undergrounding, pre-design meeting June 17 at La Jolla Rec Center.

In mid-2017, the city will begin moving utility lines in the remaining, lower portion of the Muirlands neighborhood underground. The project is entering the design phase.

All utility providers — including San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), Time-Warner cable and AT&T— will install their conduits in one trench. The project (located in area 1M1) will take from three to four years, the city says. Workers will first dig trenches, then run conduits and wiring underground, resurface the street, install new streetlights, remove overhead lines, and, finally, remove old power poles.

A similar meeting was held for La Jolla Shores’ residents in March, for undergrounding work scheduled to begin there in April 2016. Undergrounding of San Diego’s major roadways began in 1970, and in residential neighborhoods in 2003, the later funded by a California Public Utilities Commission-approved utility bill surcharge. .

During the meeting, Mario Reyes, a project manager with the city’s Undergrounding Utilities Program, spoke about the types, sizes and location of aboveground equipment boxes that will be added when replacing overhead poles and wires — and where they might be placed to minimize visual impacts to property owners.

Replacing streetlights

Since streetlights are currently mounted on existing utility poles slated for removal, the existing fixtures will have to be replaced with another type of streetlight. The city is considering removing or relocating some lights in the middle of blocks, where the community no longer wants them.

“Depending on the curvature of the road, depending on the speed of traffic, most likely they are OK with removing (or relocating) those lights,” Reyes said.

When relocating lights, the city must have the consent of the property owner where the light is to be reinstalled, as well as consent of the adjacent property owner and the owners of the two properties directly across from the proposed light. Lights at intersections, sharp or blind curves and cul de sacs must be retained for safety purposes, Reyes said.

At present, the city plans to replace exsisting lights with arched, generic city lamps called “cobra” lights. If residents prefer another type, which may be more expensive, they must pay the cost difference, and form a maintenance assessment district (MAD) for the lights’ upkeep (funded by an annual assessment on property owners). Cobra lights cost the city around $12,000 each, while more decorative, shorter lights with acorn-shaped lamps cost about $15,000, Reyes said.

“By early 2018 we’d need to have the funds (for the alternative lighting) and we need to have the approval of the MAD, so that the project is not delayed,” he said.

Although some meeting attendees favored the ornate, old-timey look of acorn lights, others said they shine in windows and don’t provide enough light for safety at intersections. Attendee Phil Merten suggested cobra lights would be acceptable if reduced from their standard height of 29 feet, and perhaps had a more decorative pole.

“We generally do not like street lights in any fashion,” Merten said. “Won’t have automobile accidents in their area. … It’s a city engineer that’s hung up on the safety issue.” (The city says the project was originally slated to have 35 street lights though it now includes only 20.)

City spokesperson Tim Graham said the city hasn’t installed any truncated cobra lights as part of an undergrounding project, though it might be an option if such lights are available and residents agree to form a MAD and pay for the them prior to installation.

City Council compromise

A City Council-approved Utilities Undergrounding Advisory Committee, which included La Jolla Community Planning Association President Joe LaCava, and representatives from five other communities and from SDG&E, AT&T and cable providers, held monthly meetings to discuss improving the undergrounding process for both current and upcoming projects — ultimately recommending the city hold the community design forums.

Earlier this year, the City Council decided not to require that 100 percent of equipment be placed underground, but to minimize the number of aboveground utility boxes and improve their locations. When located underground, equipment boxes are not as easy to access, increasing the time it takes to restore power or other services after an outage. In addition, water can easily get inside and damage equipment when it is situated below ground, so utility boxes must be installed above ground, Reyes said.

“In the old days, street lights and utility boxes would just appear in front of your house,” added San Diego City Council President Sherri Lightner, who was in attendance.

Reyes said work in a given block would take two months. Trenches may be left open for brief periods, he said, adding, “A lot of people call and think the contractor has walked away … but he may be on the other street burying cable.”

Location of boxes

Each utility box serves eight to 14 homes, depending on the size and usage of homes in an area. Boxes are typically placed in the middle the area they serve, Reyes said, adding that the person on whose property a box is to be located has a say as to where on his or her property it will go.

SDG&E Project Manager Debora Ritch said utility boxes cannot abut buildings and windows, as the electricity tends to generate a humming noise, and must also have operational clearances from structures and water and sewer lines because “electricity can be unpredictable,” and “water and electricity don’t mix.”

Ritch said SDG&E tries to use the largest boxes possible, so that there are fewer of them, though they cannot block the view of motorists. Short metal posts, or bollards, are placed around utility boxes in the “mow strip” (between sidewalk and curb) to prevent vehicles from striking and damaging them.

Ritch said the city always tries to locate equipment boxes in the area between the street and where the property line starts. They can be spaced across the street from one another (such as cable on one side and SDG&E on the other) or in clusters on or near the property line of two homes — and obscured by vegetation. “We don’t even mind if they’re painted the same color as the building, as long as our tags are still showing,” she said. Most people in attendance favored spreading them out.

Those who prefer the boxes be set further back on their property will have to provide easements to SDG&E, Time-Warner and AT&T, Reyes said.

Some attendees expressed concern that they only received notice of the meeting a week in advance, and said some of their neighbors were out of town or couldn’t attend on such short notice. They also balked at Reyes’ attempts to urge an official vote on box locations and types of replacement streetlights, saying it was too early in the process.

La Jolla Town Council trustee Michael Dershowitz, who was in attendance, commended the city for holding the meeting. “This was a good first step in a complicated and lengthy process,” he said, though adding, “More advance notice should be given for the next one, along with a clear indication of its importance. Issues of our choice of street lamps and placement of utility boxes on every street should be discussed again with greater community input.”

Muirlands resident Reena Horowitz said she felt there was a lot discussed at the meeting, though “no real conclusions.

“I appreciate that they’re actually trying to make us feel like we have a voice in the situation, but as for firm guidelines or decisions I didn’t feel like we accomplished anything,” she said.

Graham said another community forum on the project would be held two months prior to construction, including more information about the location of boxes and transformers.

“Optimally, invitations are mailed to residents within the project area two weeks prior to the meeting date,” he said.

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