Utility proposal worries some

Some residents in the Del Mar North Hills undergrounding district are questioning the cost and fairness in the assessment process for taking down the poles and wires in their neighborhood.

Longtime resident Ann Dempsey said the utility poles don’t bother her enough to justify funding a project she said could cost the neighborhood $12 million.

Dempsey said she is not against undergrounding and said many of the supporters are her friends. But she is challenging the city’s determination that the cost assessments are based on each property’s linear feet, not on the benefits the project will have on the view.

A property with a longer street frontage than another (but no ocean view) will receive a higher assessment, even if the other property, with a small street frontage, thus a lower assessment cost, gets the better view benefit.

“The church is going to be really socked,” said Dempsey of St. Peter’s Episcopal, which has three frontages. But a home near the church with an ocean view interrupted by poles and wires will pay much less. She calls this formula unfair.

Garry Shirts, coordinator of the North Hills undergrounding steering committee, said that City Council and the assessment engineer developed the formula during the Ocean View Pines project, completed in 2006. Since then, he said public hearings have been held to make changes to the formula based on what they learned from the 2006 project.

“The process adopted by the city gives owners an opportunity to challenge their assessments if they believe that such assessments do not reflect special benefit received by such owners’ properties,” Shirts said.

Shirts said that homeowners with concerns will have many opportunities to question assessment rates before the project is put to a vote. The steering committee will send out letters with assessment rates, they will all be posted on the city Web site or at city hall and a public meeting will be held allowing owners to ask questions of the assessment engineer.

While the official assessments have not been released as the steering committee works on lowering the cost of the project from SDG&E, Dempsey said she is worried about taking on a high price for what she said is essentially a beautification project.

But Shirts said the project is about more than just beautification — it also increases efficiency by getting rid of an old system and removes potential fire hazards and old, creosote poles.

Individual assessments could range from $30,000 to $60,000, a price tag Dempsey said leaves some homeowners “terrified.” She said there are many living in Del Mar who moved in 30 to 40 years ago and stayed put.

“Now many are widows like myself, living on fixed incomes,” Dempsey said. “The burden of adding this to their finances, that’s a lot of money.”

Dempsey can point out homes in the district of people who would struggle to pay their assessment: She said one neighbor is saving for a child’s college education, another had hoped to take a nice vacation and another she said would lose his house if forced to pay for the undergrounding project.

Pointing out a yellow Del Mar Shores Park sign in one yard, Dempsey said she has been hesitant to donate to the park fund until she knows how much she might have to pay for the undergrounding project.