Some say power line formula is flawed

Undergrounding charge based on lot frontage

A small group of residents is raising concerns about the process for undergrounding utility lines in the northeast area of town known as the Sunset Undergrounding District.

Residents Bill Lewis and Don Smith said the formula the city uses to generate assessments for each property’s share to put overhead utility lines underground is flawed and unfair for the Sunset district because of the oddly shaped parcels and hilly topography.

“We want to see Del Mar look good,” Lewis said. “We’re not trying to kill this thing - we want to do it right.”

The city is reviewing the formula and plans to present a revised methodology to Sunset district residents and the neighboring North Hills District in late July and early August, said city engineer Carmen Kasner.

“We will make deviations and additions to the methodology based on the uniqueness of each district,” Kasner said.

The Del Mar formula uses several factors, including benefits received from improved views and the length of wire removed from along each property.

Lewis, an architect, and Smith, a retired UCSD math professor, applied the formula to a sample of 49 of the 135 parcels in the Sunset district. They found many instances where the assessment tied to the property did not appear to line up with benefits received, which is required by state law.

For example, a parcel with a panoramic ocean view would pay $20,000 less than a parcel with no ocean view because the first parcel has a very short property frontage where power lines would be removed and the second parcel has a very long frontage.

Likewise, two lots with the same ocean view could pay vastly different sums; one would pay $37,000 more than the other, according to Smith’s calculations, because it has a much longer frontage than the other.

“To me, that isn’t fair,” Lewis said. “We can’t have a formula dependent on geometry.”

The men analyzed the same parcels using the assessment formula used in Solana Beach, which does not use length of wire removed and gives more weight to view improvements. They found the large variations were minimized and more closely mirrored the benefits received rather than the costs associated with removing the wires.

For example, under the formula used in Solana Beach, the two lots with the same ocean view would each pay $29,000, rather than one lot paying $51,000 and the other paying $14,000 under the formula used in Del Mar, according to Smith’s calculations.

Smith and Lewis said they have met with city staff about their concerns and findings several times since early 2008, but were met with resistance to alter the formula.

“Finally, with data and graphs they saw the light, but it was a struggle,” Smith said.

City engineer Kasner said the formula template was developed through many public meetings with the community and city council, but that she recognized the need to account for the uniqueness of the Sunset district “from day one.”

“We are looking carefully at the formula to make sure we do a fair and impartial assessment,” Kasner said.

Kasner stressed she could not be swayed by any one person’s suggestions because she has to remain independent and impartial as the assessment engineer.

After the revised formulas are presented later this summer, the projects will go out to bid. Then, each property owner will know the assessment amount and can vote for or against undergrounding in September.

Smith and Lewis have gained the attention of several neighbors, who are also concerned the formula be revised fairly.

“I was for it, but if it’s this unfair, I will vote against it,” said resident Pat Welsh.

Greg Fehr, co-chair of the steering committee for the Sunset Undergrounding District, said he agrees the formula should be fair, but “overall, we wholeheartedly believe the process is working fairly well.”