Estimates for utility project ‘floor’ Del Mar North Hills residents

Residents in the Del Mar North Hills undergrounding district had hoped to vote this month on whether or not to move forward with a project to bury overhead power lines below ground. But an unexpected increase in the cost estimate for the project from San Diego Gas & Electric has forced at least a three-month delay.

“We’re getting there,” said North Hills committee member Sharon Hilliard. “But dealing with a utility can be frustrating.”

Coordinator Garry Shirts said the committee was preparing to mail assessments out to the some 320 homeowners in their district when they were “floored” by the new cost estimates.

Other cost estimates for the project, such as trenching, were coming in lower than expected. But the cabling costs came in much higher than comparable projects, such as the Ocean Pines undergrounding project, which was completed in 2006.

“We were appalled, decimated and frustrated,” Shirts said. “It isn’t right to charge this much money.”

Shirts and Hilliard are now doing battle with SDG&E to lower the costs and fighting for the right to bid out the cabling project to independent contractors to avoid the expense SDG&E is charging.

They have been told by SDG&E that the rules do not allow private contractors. Hilliard said the rules do say that the cabling “shall be done by the utility,” but they don’t expressly forbid the district paying for an independent contractor to do the work.

“As the district representatives we want to do everything that’s humanly possible to get everyone in the district the best prices,” Hilliard said. “We believe that we have an opportunity to do that.”

The undergrounding project would remove the creosote poles and can-like transformers and wires. Getting rid of the wires also reduces fire risk from downed lines and increases efficiency by upgrading an old system and, often, unreliable transformers.

North Hills’ undergrounding process has been a long one, set into motion three years ago with the formation of the undergrounding district. But the plans to remove overhead lines have been a goal of the many neighborhood residents since the 1980s, said Shirts who has lived in Del Mar since 1965.

After the city formed the district in North Hills, they circulated petitions and neighbors put up $34,500 of their own money to cover up front costs to the city.

Once the project’s costs are agreed upon, Hilliard said individual assessments for each homeowner would be mailed out. The project will then go to a mail ballot vote for all district property owners and require at least a 51 percent approval to pass. After the vote, City Council will still need to approve the project.

Back in 2007, the committee hoped ballots would be mailed in March this year, with construction beginning in July of 2009, wrapping up in 2011.

“It’s going to happen,” Hilliard said. “It’ll just take longer than we thought.”