Directs Staff to Explore Potential Funding and Ballot Measure Opportunities
The City of Laguna Beach unanimously adopted new policy and funding solutions to underground utility infrastructure at its October 24th City Council meeting, a decision that was met with strong support from the public. In addition to advancing a portfolio of solutions designed to reduce the threat of severe fires occurring and spreading throughout the region, the City Council also directed staff to explore options for funding undergrounding projects citywide through a ballot measure or other initiatives.
As exposed by a recent Los Angeles Times feature, power lines and electrical equipment are a leading cause of wildfires in California. Laguna Beach is uniquely vulnerable to severe fire disasters, and the threat to public safety is exacerbated by the City’s above-ground power lines and related infrastructure.
“Laguna knows all too well about the devastation caused by wildfires and my heart goes out to all those whose lives were changed in an instant by the massive fires in Northern California,” said Councilmember Bob Whalen. "Our Laguna Beach residents live every day with the threat of destruction from fires sparked by power lines and transformers. Reading that the fires in Northern California may have been sparked by overhead utility lines and equipment once again sends an urgent message – this is a watershed moment, and we need to be bold to address our number one threat to Laguna Beach."
The City Council voted on Tuesday to approve the following recommended actions:
Authorize the purchase of California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Rule 20A undergrounding credits from Rancho Santa Margarita and Indian Wells to assist with undergrounding projects;
Direct staff to use $3 million in available funds and up to $4 million in Measure LL, Street Lighting and Rule 20A funds available during the next two fiscal years for undergrounding of utilities along highest priority evacuation routes; and
Direct staff to continue to investigate other funding opportunities, such as the creation of a community facilities district, a general obligation bond or revenue bond, and present to the City Council in the near future.
As part of a settlement agreement with Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), the City is also working to repeal its preliminary ordinance requiring utility companies to underground all new and replacement utility infrastructure. After the City passed the ordinance in March of 2017, the two utilities filed lawsuits against the City to prevent enactment of the ordinance. Rather than fighting a long legal battle that would not serve the community’s best interest, the City Council has reached a settlement agreement, committing the utilities to work with the City to review safety concerns and existing overhead electric systems and discuss opportunities to reduce fire risk. It also allows for the advancement of Rule 20A funds for up to five years for City-initiated undergrounding projects. SCE has agreed to develop preliminary designs for undergrounding of electric facilities along Laguna Canyon Road in 12 months instead of 24 months, and SDG&E agreed to advance the City initial funding for engineering and design costs for undergrounding projects that take place within the next five years.
“The utility companies have refused to help expedite undergrounding, leaving us no choice but to ask our community to support a local funding plan. We must get this done to protect lives and property,” said Laguna Beach Mayor Toni Iseman.