Manhattan Beach Powerlines Stock Photo

Utility wires and poles often get in the way of views in Manhattan Beach. Residents have debated for two decades about whether undergrounding costs to homeowners is worth the expense. (File photo by Lisa Jacobs) 

The hot-button issue of undergrounding utility wires is about to take center stage in Manhattan Beach. 

For the first time in a decade, officials are expected to jump start a process at the August 6 council meeting where roughly 472 North Manhattan Beach homeowners will vote on whether or not they’d like overhead utility wires placed underground.

Residents in the El Porto area between Highland and The Strand from 45th Street south to Rosecrans (districts 12 and 14) will have until Oct. 1 to cast ballots. 

The special property tax assessment—which would cost between $19,754 to upwards of $56,185 per household, according to Public Works Director Stephanie Katsouleas—has to be approved by more than 50 percent of the residents in those districts.

If undergrounding earns more than 50 percent of the vote in the utility assessment area, those two districts will be the sixth and seventh districts within Manhattan Beach to ground their utilities, following an almost 10-year moratorium.

And those neighborhoods won’t be the only ones to underground in the near future. 

Just behind them in the process is District 4—about 167 homes in the Hill Section—for which design plans are being finalized and set to be put out to bid this fall, according to Public Works Director Stephanie Katsouleas, who added there are more districts interested in taking wires underground.

“(Districts) 8 and 13 are champing at the bit to go forward,” Katsouleas said of other neighborhoods at a July 2 council meeting, where she was approved to hire an additional senior civil engineer for the program to the tune of a $168,180 salary. “I told everybody I think I can accommodate you in 2020.” 

The first districts to vote since 2009

Districts 12 and 14 will be the first two districts in Manhattan Beach to vote on undergrounding since 2009 when the city placed a moratorium on projects due to the recession.

Prior to that, Districts 1, 3, 5 and 6 in the Sand Section of the city—west of Highland between Rosecrans and 15th Street—had already been successfully undergrounded, as had District 2 in the Hill Section, said Katsouleas. 

Other districts, including 4, 7, 9, 10 and 11 had been dissolved “due to lack of support among affected homeowners based on the estimated cost of construction,” according to the city’s undergrounding manual.

It wasn’t until 2017 that then-council decided to lift the moratorium, reinvigorate the undergrounding process and approved city staffers to hire four engineers to jump start work.

The city has already spent $197,000 on District 12 and $225,000 on District 14 creating design plans for the neighborhoods, according to Katsouleas. That money will be recouped when the residents in those districts pay their assessments if the proposal to underground gains their approval. 

District 4 elected to pay for its own design plans in light of failure to earn more than half the vote from residents in the mid 2000s, the first time undergrounding was put to a vote in the district, according to Former Mayor Nick Tell, who is also a District 4 homeowner.

“The city said well we can go through a whole process or residents can put up the money so the city is not at risk,” Tell explained.

Understanding the undergrounding process

When undergrounding kicked off in Manhattan Beach in the early 2000s, neighborhoods began forming districts of fewer than 300 homes.

The districts were formed through a petition process where at least 60 percent of the homeowners in the area had to express an interest in undergrounding. That number has since been changed to 66 percent, according to Katsouleas. 

If that was successful, the city would then send out a survey which had to garner a 60 percent return rate affirming residents wanted to go forward with the process.

At that point, city engineers would work on design plans and put the project to underground the neighborhood out to bid.

“The city will spend city dollars to have design plans done and to provide staff support through that process to put the project out to bid to get them to the 218 process,” said Katsouleas.

The Proposition 218 process gave the homeowners 45 days to officially cast their vote for or against undergrounding in their district. If undergrounding earned more than 50 percent of the vote, the city then charged homeowners to pay for the project.

The vote was not divided as one per household, Katsouleas explained, but rather was directly correlated to the amount of each particular lot’s assessment.

“The more financial impact to you, the more say you get in the vote,” she said.

The assessment—or amount charged to homeowners—can be highly variable in range and depends on the number of homes in the district as well as the lot size. It includes costs for installing in the public right of way as well as connecting private property lines. 

Homeowners had 30 days to pay the fee in full or were able to finance it with interest, according to the city’s undergrounding manual.

Those in dire financial situations were able to apply for the city’s deferment program, which would place a hold on their amount due which then had to be paid when the home was sold and transferred owners, with interest included.

And if residents wanted to opt out of a district, that had to be done during the petition phase at the beginning of the district's formation. 

Some homes were not be able to opt out due to where the home is located and if there is overwhelming support in that district for undergrounding.

“You cannot opt out if you’re in the middle of a district and served by wires coming down,” said Katsouleas.

Controversy abounds, but here's what experts say

Despite making real progress in the city for the first time in a decade, undergrounding still remains a passionate issue for many Manhattan Beach natives.

Robert Bush, a resident of District 9 who is against undergrounding, thinks the city is advocating for it. 

“That’s the problem that we’ve had all along is that they’re pushing so they get revenue,” Bush said, noting there are residents who can’t afford it and those who shouldn’t be forced to pay for something they don’t want. 

“We really don’t need undergrounding, there’s no safety or reliability benefits. It’s better the way it is now with the lines above ground...there was a moratorium for a while and now it’s back again. The monster is approaching us.” 

Councilmember Richard Montgomery emphasized undergrounding is purely a resident-driven venture.

“The city is not saying we’re pro or con,” he explained.

Of the August 6 meeting, which will jump start the voting process in Districts 12 and 14, Montgomery said it was simply the next step. 

“All council is doing is saying here’s what’s going on and this is what’s going to happen,” he explained.

Former Mayor Tell, who helped lead the undergrounding effort in the early 2000s when he was on council, expressed the opposite of Bush. 

“It makes a safer, more secure and reliable electrical system,” Tell said. “It pays for itself in droves and should’ve been done years ago when it was a lot cheaper to do it.” 

Tell is now helping organize his district through its second attempt at the process.

“It’s up to the residents to decide,” Tell said. “Hopefully they show up and vote.”

“The challenge is 10 years ago there were a few people who were adamantly opposed and created a lot of misleading information,” he added. 

Robert Villegas, a spokesperson for Southern California Edison, said there are benefits to both wires on poles as well as undergrounded systems.

“The nice thing about undergrounding is you don’t have things blowing into lines like palm fronds or metallic balloons,” he explained. “Even something as simple as a car hitting a pole can cause outages. But underground systems can be more difficult to work on. It can be more difficult to locate the issue and take longer to resolve.”

Villegas added consumers and cities vary on aesthetics, but summed up the tradeoff of undergrounding as “fewer outages but outages that last longer.”

*Updated 8/5 to reflect changes in number of homes in the districts mentioned as well as the cost estimations of undergrounding. The previous range beginning at $7,000 was based on older data from when the city began undergrounding in the mid-2000s. 

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