A discrepancy in cost estimates and concerns about fire safety led the Del Mar City Council on Monday, April 15, to postpone initiating the first phase of construction on its utility undergrounding project.
At the request of the city’s staff, the council reaffirmed its commitment to place power and telecommunications lines underground throughout the entire coastal community of about 4,500 residents.
Also, the council vowed to finance the work almost entirely through Measure Q, a 1 percent sales tax passed by city voters in 2016 to sponsor a series of infrastructure improvements.
Those include an overhaul of Camino Del Mar’s streetscape, work that is now in progress, and the undergrounding of utility wires while eliminating the above-ground poles.
The council, however, balked at authorizing the pilot program that would result in the utilities being placed below ground in two locales identified as Areas 1A and X.
Area 1A consists of 265 parcels straddling Stratford Court west of Camino Del Mar and bounded by 11th Street to the north, while extending south about a. block past Fourth Street.
Area X encompasses 43 parcels off San Dieguito Drive and borders the wildlands of Crest Canyon.
Area 1A was selected to demonstrate how the undergrounding would work and how much it would cost in a neighborhood with dense housing. In contrast, X was chosen because it has fewer residences and is classified as a high risk for wildfires by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Contact between power lines and vegetation has been blamed for sparking several disastrous wildfires in California.
Council members, however, were reluctant to proceed with the pilot program because of a huge difference in projected costs for the entire project. A city-hired consulting firm that prepared the project analysis concluded the work from start to finish would cost $52 million.
The city’s Undergrounding Project Advisory Committee, however, heard from industry specialists who contended the estimate was too high and projected it to cost as little as $25 million.
“This is the largest project the city has ever undertaken, City Hall included,” said Tom McGreal.
He is a member of the city’s finance committee, but said he was speaking on his own behalf.
“It’s a long-term project that’s going to take us 20 years to complete,” McGreal said. “I am recommending we hit the pause button. We stop and try to find out what the difference is in the pricing disparity.”
Council members agreed the city needs to do a better job of nailing down the cost before committing to the pilot program. They referred the issue back to the undergrounding committee for consideration at its April 18 meeting, with the possibility that another consultant may be needed.
The council also directed the staff to look at expanding Area X to include undergrounding farther south from San Dieguito Road along Crest Road also abutting Crest Canyon.
Many among more than 20 residents who spoke to the council about the project complained that a lack of emphasis was placed on fire safety, especially along Crest Road.
“Fire safety should drive the priorities, in my mind,” Crest Road resident Joel Holliday said. “We’re not just talking about Crest Road. We’re talking ... about fire safety for the entire city. It’s a low probability event, hopefully, but when (a wildfire) happens, it’s going to be catastrophic.”
Design work in the pilot program was expected to take 18 months with construction beginning in about 21 months. The total cost of undergrounding in Areas 1A and X was projected at $6.7 million, a figure that would undoubtedly rise with the inclusion of the Crest Road lines and poles.