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Two neighborhoods in the El Porto region of North Manhattan Beach will be voting on whether or not to spend thousands of dollars to underground their utility wires. 

At a city council meeting Tuesday, officials kicked off the Proposition 218 voting process for Districts 12 and 14, in which registered homeowners will have until Oct. 1 to cast ballots for or against the project. 

Undergrounding must earn more than 50 percent of the vote in each district—which include 228 parcels in 12 and 244 parcels in 14—for the projects to move forward with votes being weighted based on financial impact to homeowners. 

The cost of undergrounding in the two neighborhoods will range between $19,754 and $56,185 per parcel, with the average being $29,540 in District 12 and $27,910 in District 14, according to city documents.

Assessment Engineer Jeffrey Cooper of NV5, Inc. explained the assessment is split between safety, reliability and aesthetic benefit of each parcel.

“So you take those three things together, add them up, divide by three and you come up with the average benefit,” explained Cooper, a 32-year veteran of the industry who added he has done assessments for many similar districts. “Then you take the entire benefit for the entire project and you basically percentage it to each parcel so they get their fair share of the total.”

If voters approve undergrounding projects with a majority vote, homeowners will have from Oct. 2 to Nov. 5 to pay all or part of their assessment in cash, according to Anastasia Seims, a senior civil engineer with the city. 

At that point, Seims explained, the remaining amount due for the assessment would go to bond. 

If locals are unable to pay, they are able to enroll in the city’s assessment deferment program. City officials approved continuing that program at the Tuesday meeting.

To qualify for deferment, residents must be at least 62 years old or disabled, owners of the property which must also be their primary residence and their total available assets may not exceed $1 million, excluding the property, according to the city.

Manhattan Beach leaders raised concern over whether the assessment deferment program—which gives recipients tiered loan support from the city over 20 years with a fixed interest rate and becomes due immediately if the home is sold or transferred—would exclude those who don’t meet the requirements but still face financial hardship.

“I want to make sure we have something in there for those who perhaps don’t meet the exact conditions but we would want to help them,” said Mayor Nancy Hersman.

Councilmember Richard Montgomery said when the original assessment deferment program was approved in the early 2000s, before a 10-year moratorium was placed on undergrounding due to the recession, there was a possibility for people who simply couldn’t afford the assessment to qualify for the loan. 

“We had a hardship exclusion when this came out in ‘06,” Montgomery said, noting that only five households took advantage of the deferment at that time. 

It was unclear whether the five homes that used the deferment qualified under typical parameters or the hardship exclusion, but city officials noted the number of people unable to afford the assessment was much less than anticipated.

"It tells you the numbers weren’t really what we thought they would be...but we did the right thing by having the resource available if someone took advantage of it,” Montgomery added.

Finance Director Steve Charelian said the city’s finance subcommittee would review potential exceptions for the deferment program. 

If undergrounding does earn the voter majority in Districts 12 and 14—which the city has already spent $197,000 and $225,000, respectively, creating plans for since 2005—then construction would likely begin by Feb. 2020, said Seims.

“We expect the construction to take about 8 to 10 months,” she added. “After all is said and done, everyone has to be connected before Edison will come out and remove the poles and overhead wires. We anticipate that to be in mid-2022.”

City leaders also granted Public Works Director Stephanie Katsouleas permission to hire an additional civil engineer to help spearhead the future of undergrounding in the city, as there are already other districts gearing up to underground. 

Design plans for District 4—which encompasses about 167 homes in the Hill Section of the city—are expected to be put out to bid this fall, according to Katsouleas.

“I strongly favor making Manhattan Beach look like a modern city and I think this is an important step in doing that,” said Richard Whilden, a 48-year resident who currently resides in District 4. “That 70-ft. pole with seven cross bars looks like a power plant someplace, not a neighborhood.”

“I 100 percent support undergrounding in the El Porto area,” said another resident. “I think that anytime you can improve the community, which improves the city, which improves the view that everybody has of the city...let’s hope we’re always growing and improving…” 

But, not all locals are in favor of undergrounding, which does not give residents the right to opt out of districts or paying the assessments if a project earns the majority vote and their home will now be served by wires moving underground.

“Undergrounding is the most divisive—neighbor against neighbor—despicable, immoral, unfair, controversial, unethical program ever proposed by Manhattan Beach city council,” said local Robert Bush. “Those who don’t need or want undergrounding are forced to pay…”

Resident Jon Chaykowski, who cited a background in systems engineering and math modeling, called for underground assessments to be based on more than three pieces Cooper mentioned, an approach he called “unprofessional and simplistic.”

“I’m talking because of fairness. The whole thing that the council wants to do is be fair to all the parcel owners,” said Chaykowski. “I’m not talking about should we have undergrounding or not have undergrounding. Hey, if the wave of people want it, let them go for it. But the engineering job done by our city has to be fair. It has to be just.” 

Outside engineer Cooper countered that his experience had taught him otherwise, noting he has assessed districts from Los Angeles to Orange County and is working on them in Hermosa Beach, Torrance and Newport Beach.

“Without any doubt, it’s the best practice in my opinion,” Cooper said.

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