Power struggle: It’s now or never undergrounding supporters say

Call it undergrounding’s last stand.

Major proponents of the North Hills citizens committee say if the proposal to move utility lines below ground does not move forward, there will never be another chance for Del Mar to make it happen. With an April 26 deadline, residents of both the North Hills and Sunset districts will submit ballots either saying yes or no to a 30-year lien on their homes to finance the projects. Sharon Hilliard of the North Hills undergrounding committee said she remains confident voters will come through, despite intense opposition from what she called a vocal few.

“I will be extraordinarily surprised if it doesn’t pass, I still believe we have majority support, and I don’t believe in the tyranny of the minority,” she said of claims that loans for undergrounding will force residents out of their homes. “What they’ve done is gone and convinced other people that you’re going to hurt my neighbor if you vote for it, and it’s become very divisive and that’s not right, and I think it’s immoral to scare people.”

Hilliard said less than ten percent, or 32 of the 321 property owners in the North Hills District, will be in need of financial support, according to her calculations. Those opposed to undergrounding say it places an unnecessary burden on residents, which is magnified by the worst recession since the depression.

“Is not a democracy supposed to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority?” said North Hills resident Brooke Eisenberg-Pike, who opposes the project. “There is no moral equivalence between the people who will suffer should this pass and the people who will suffer should it not pass. Should it not pass, those people have other options.”

For qualifying residents, the nonpartisan community support fund, which has raised $150,000 in pledges, will assist with a loan of up to $20,000 at 3 percent interest. Payments are deferrable until death, selling the house, or 15 years, whichever comes first.

“As a community we have always pulled together and helped our neighbors,” Hilliard said, adding that a reverse mortgage is now another realistic option.

But North Hills resident Ann Dempsey, who will vote against undergrounding, said even the community support fund imposes unwanted debt on people.

“This fund is at the last minute and it’s not paying for it. It’s a loan,” she said.

Hilliard said when the North Hills process started in 2006, 78 percent of the people she approached in the district signed a nonbinding petition expressing interest. But several of those who signed that document are now against the project.

Dempsey, a signor, said she and many others did not expect assessments to be as high as they turned out to be. There is also no longer a statewide program that would have allowed senior citizens or those with disabilities to defer paying back the loan until the house is sold.

“Some pay $38,000 and some pay $12,000, and then talking about scare tactics, they’re saying fire, fire, fire. Everybody’s worried about fire but then if it’s fire it should be a citywide effort,” she said.

Project supporters maintain taking the utility poles underground would eliminate the fire risk of downed power lines in a storm or earthquake. They also say it would enhance property values, beautify neighborhoods and eliminate the need to trim trees to avoid the electric wires. Undergrounding the lines will most likely not decrease homeowners’ insurance rates.

The larger North Hills Undergrounding district is estimated to cost a total of $7.5 million, with the Sunset district tallied at $3.2 million, divided up among property owners through Proposition 218-mandated assessments.

Hilliard said the price of building materials as well as the down economy makes this the best time to begin construction at minimal costs. She said she does not foresee anyone ever repeating this four-year district undergrounding planning process in the future if it fails.

Individual property owners are able to underground their own utility poles, but costs are substantially higher, and include a 35 percent tax that does not apply if undergrounding is done district-wide.

The city has raised a combined roughly $1.2 million in contingency funds for unforeseen costs during construction. If a majority exists after votes are tallied on April 27, the Del Mar City Council will decide whether to move forward in forming the two assessment districts.

Related posts:

  1. Estimates for utility project ‘floor’ Del Mar North Hills residents
  2. Council OKs more funding for undergrounding projects
  3. Del Mar utility line plan moves forward
  4. Utility funding options explored
  5. Undergrounding questions remain

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