‘No boxes for any reason,’ community says; earlier partnership is needed
By Anthony King | SDUN Editor
Community members from several San Diego neighborhoods met Monday, Sept. 24 to express mounting concerns over the city’s Utilities Undergrounding Program. Organized in part by District Three Councilmember Todd Gloria, the Community Utility Box Workshop was to provide a forum for public comment and question.
As part of the Undergrounding Program, the city is moving 20 – 25 miles of overhead utility lines underground each year. Not every aspect of the utility lines are placed underground, resulting in transformer boxes in various locations throughout the neighborhoods, including along public right of way, on private homeowner property and in front of businesses.
Of the approximately 70 people in attendance, most voiced their desire for getting the green transformer boxes completely out of sight.
“My main interest tonight is to work toward getting the boxes underground,” the first community member said once the floor was open to public comment.
“The process needs to stop. No more above ground; that’s ridiculous,” another said later in the meeting, which lasted over two hours. “Most people would rather have it done right, or not at all. We cannot have boxes for any reasons,” she said.
There were representatives from most Uptown neighborhoods, including Kensington, Talmadge, Normal Heights, North Park, Bankers Hill and Mission Hills. As the undergrounding process is city wide, community members from Mission Valley, Mission Bay, La Jolla and Del Cero were also in attendance.
“A concern that I’ve had is that we’re spending literally millions of dollars to underground utilities, and some neighborhoods are starting to tell me that they would rather keep the [above ground] utilities than move to the boxes. That’s why we’re here tonight,” Gloria said.
“We have a plan that we’re following, but I think as we’ve unveiled that plan, lessons have been learned, some mistakes may have been made and there’s some desire to make sure there’s some continuous improvement,” he said.
In addition to box placement – including cost, easement questions and graffiti, as well as fall hazards from the transformer pads – inadequate public input in the planning process and maintenance of existing boxes was addressed.
“These issues stem from a lack of oversight or lack of standards,” Cheryl Dye said at the meeting. Dye was speaking as a representative of the North Park Planning Committee, as well as the Community Planners Committee (CPC) utility box sub-committee.
“We know we all have to work together to figure out the best solutions, but fundamentally we feel there’s inadequate city oversight,” Dye said, acknowledging that it was not common practice to place the transformers underground. “We don’t expect that,” she said.
Attendees continued to return to the topic of placing the boxes underground, however, and asked representatives from San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) to provide proof to the claims undergrounding the transformers increased interrupted service and posed a safety hazard to their employees.
“Before we abandon the idea of undergrounding all together, I think SDG&E should provide some verifiable evidence that indeed there is going to be a problem with employee safety,” one community member said.
Representatives from SDG&E were in attendance to address some of the community’s concerns, including Frank Urtasun, SDG&E Regional Vice President of External Affairs.
“Our position has not changed on that,” Urtasun said. “The reason we don’t put those transformers underground [is] for safety and reliability purposes. I heard what you said tonight, and we will take note and go back and see what we can provide to you to substantiate that.”
In addition to SDG&E, representatives from Cox Cable, Time Warner Cable and AT&T were also in attendance, however the majority of concerns were addressed to SDG&E.
The Sept. 24 workshop was one in a series addressing the entire issue of undergrounding. The first was held by the CPC on July 24, resulting in changes to the timeline for the Undergrounding Program.
City representative Deborah Van Wanseele presented the new timeline, in order to address concerns surrounding lack of community input. She said the additional input added two to three months to the process, however community members were concerned about joining the discussion too late to affect change.
“The bottom line here is we can talk about where these things go until we’re blue in the face, but we’ve got to get a dialog going by the second or third month,” Normal Heights resident Mark Rowland said.
Van Wanseele’s timeline seeks input from residents after 18 months of design by SDG&E, allowing for property-owner feedback in the 19th month.
“The only way this is going to work is if we’re partners. By the time you’ve drawn details, it’s too late,” Rowland said. “If you work with the community groups from day one … we’re going to be your best allies.”
For additional information on the Undergrounding Program, including history, project schedule and contact information, visit sandiego.gov/undergrounding/. Additionally, Gloria encouraged the community to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to be placed on a mailing list for updates.