Utility lines, downtown streetscape, Shores Park first in line for Measure Q windfall

With a laundry list of projects poised to cost tens of millions of dollars in the decade ahead, Del Mar took its first tentative steps this week toward spending the $2.25 million that will be generated by June 30 from the 1-cent sales tax increase voters approved last November.

At a special administrative meeting on Oct. 23, the city council committed three initiatives to the Measure Q funding pool: undergrounding utility lines throughout the city, the multiyear facelift of Del Mar’s downtown corridor, and the new master plan for Del Mar Shores Park, the city’s 5.3-acre park at Camino del Mar and 9th Street.

When voters approved Measure Q by more than 33 percentage points last fall, the ballot listed those three projects as examples of how the money could be spent. The city, however, has never explicitly stated what projects would be chosen, nor has it laid out the criteria for how those decisions will be made.

The issue materialized during the council’s hour-long deliberation on Oct. 23, its first substantial discussion of Measure Q since the election.

Councilmen Dwight Worden and Dave Druker were uneasy with the notion of committing Q funds without giving the community a chance to suggest other projects that might be better suited. They wanted to endorse the three projects but not have the decision become official until the council’s Nov. 20 meeting. In the meantime, the community could weigh in with other proposals.

“If we say we’re going to do undergrounding in five years, we may not have any money left,” Worden said. “If we say we’re going to do undergrounding in eight years, we may have money to rebuild the library. I want the community to have the chance to come down and argue those kinds of issues.”

But the other three councilmembers felt community input was premature.

“Why collect feedback before we’re ready to do something about it?” said Councilwoman Ellie Haviland.

The council settled on making a preliminary commitment to the three projects, holding a public hearing to determine Measure Q criteria, and evaluating other proposals for Q funding as the city’s financial picture takes clearer shape.

Because costs for consultants and design work on the Shores Park master plan have already been allocated, the council does not expect to need Q funding for that project this fiscal year.

Some Q funding might go toward accelerating aspects of the Downtown Streetscape project, a $5 million package of infrastructure and aesthetic upgrades to Camino del Mar between 9th and 15th streets. The council has committed $1 million toward the first annual construction cycle, which will run between January and May — mainly to repave the street surface, rebuild sidewalks and redesign intersections. Late February or early March would be the latest the council will be able to use Q funds to expand the work that will be done during the upcoming construction cycle.

The biggest financial uncertainty is the long-sought undergrounding initiative. Estimates have ranged from $25 million to $50 million to bury Del Mar’s remaining above-ground utility lines.

The council committed $500,000 to get the project moving, and also agreed to begin appointing the project team that will lead the undergrounding effort, first by crafting a budget and finding a consultant. The council had already designated a subcommittee of the city’s Finance Committee to provide oversight and to track expenditures.

Dan Quirk, chairman of that subcommittee, was hopeful that the project team can have its first meeting within the next few weeks. Once the project team is up and running, he said, undergrounding can begin sooner rather than later in neighborhoods that have already done the necessary design work. All that would remain, he said, would be for the city to cut a check.

“I know I’m gung-ho on this, but I think it actually is that easy. I actually don’t think this project is as complicated as we’re making it out to be,” he said. “I think it’s 15 smaller, bite-sized projects. … We’re not doing the entire city all at once; we’re doing all of these smaller projects separately.”

But with a slew of major questions yet to be worked out — including the expected time frame, options for financing, a decision on whether to reimburse homeowners who have already undergrounded their utility lines, and finding ways to help people who can’t afford to connect their homes — Mayor Terry Sinnott insisted that the undertaking will not be so simple.

“Without good communication, without clearly understanding how things are going to get paid for, this whole thing will crater, it’ll crater very badly,” he said. “So we’ve got to be really careful but I think it’s time to move forward and get going.”