Letter to the Editor: Undergrounding Utilities Debate

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The Newport Beach undergrounding debate should not be a debate about the pros and cons of undergrounding. It is really about forcing residents to suffer an unrequested and undesired financial burden for a non-essential service.

The City should change their purportedly neutral but actually pro-undergrounding policy. Their tacit approval of the undergrounding petition process (by paying for the mailing, refusal to notify residents of their ability to rescind their names with another mailing, and repeated refusal of requested information), has pitted neighbor against neighbor and created irreparable harm to our community in the name of aesthetics.

The City says it realizes that the outdated petition process based on a 1913 law is ‘contentious.’ They don’t seem to realize that the process is permanently fracturing our community. In AD118 many neighbors who have been friends for decades are now literally not talking to each other because of this issue. How sad, and how avoidable if the City Council would change the laws to remedy the process where as few as three people (or in AD118’s case, the City) can so easily initiate a petition for an Assessment District. The City shouldn’t be neutral. It should be proactive in protecting its residents from financial attack.

On January 16, 2015 the City of Newport Beach sent out a Petition for Proposed Undergrounding District 118, with an enclosed response postcard asking homeowners to simply ‘acknowledge interest in the formation of this District.’ This was misleading. The Pro-Undergrounding Petition is more than a simple expression of interest.

Why is simply ‘acknowledging interest’ a binding commitment? If 60 percent of the homeowners “acknowledge interest in the formation of this district” by putting their names on a vaguely worded postcard, it will obligate the City to send out a binding ballot election where if 51 percent of the turnout (not 51 percent of the total homeowners) are in favor, it will legally obligate (at the risk of “foreclosure”) ALL homeowners to spend or borrow an average of $25,000, and delay by up to eight years already funded alley improvements in the Heights.

We think this is wrong!

There was significant community concern that the petition and postcard sent by the City was misleading and deceptive for some of the following reasons: There was no opportunity to vote ‘No,’ many larger and/or commercial parcels will have assessments significantly greater than $20-25,000, the additional cost of connections is not listed in the petition (up to $5,000), there is no mention that electrical, plumbing, irrigation, landscape and hardscape changes must be absorbed by homeowner, there is no mention that the alley improvements will be delayed by six to eight years, and there is no mention that approximately $400,000 of City funds will be paid to the utilities just for the estimate.

This is clearly unfair to those who know and care nothing about the undergrounding process and may be unlikely to vote – but who would be legally obligated to pay upwards of $25,000 if the ballot passes.

Almost three months have passed since the Pro-Undergrounding mailing was sent out to every proposed District property owner at City expense and they still haven’t been able to enlist the number of people needed by law to take the undergrounding process forward. We (230 supporters and growing daily) feel that more than enough time has passed and it is time to stop this process immediately. NOT doing so is a waste of time, effort and possibly $400,000 of taxpayer money simply for the estimate.

In response to our concern about posting accurate information on the noundergrounding.comwebsite, the City created the currently posted District 118 FAQs, partially answering some of our questions while completely ignoring others. The remaining questions that the City has refused to answer despite repeated requests are:

1- The City has admitted that they don’t have the usually required formal letter from ANY residents requesting the petition for undergrounding, the usual procedure posted on the City’s website. What were the special circumstances in this case for the City to initiate the process?

2- The City has admitted that they “have essentially cut/skipped some steps in the process and went right to the petition stage to save time.” Is it legal for the City to cut and skip steps in the usual petition process to save time? In response they have defensively posted on their most recent FAQs that they can legally initiate the Petition on their own, although this is not the usual process.

3- From examining the history of the changing map boundaries (see Maps section of noundergrounding.com) it appears that the City is gerrymandering the District to push through their undergrounding agenda. What are the specific details of the community input that led to changes in the boundaries of District 118?

4- The City stated that in the case of Newport Heights, proponents of the district developed an undergrounding interest list last summer and that these proponents received over 150 signatures in support of undergrounding, but both the City and undergrounding proponents have repeatedly refused to provide this list.

The argument against the petition for undergrounding is simple and clear: It is simply not fair to force others to pay more than $20,000 (ironically, enough to pay for a solar installation and almost eliminate our monthly electric bills) and delay by years the already funded alley repairs, for the aesthetic whims of their neighbors.

Arguing the pros and cons of undergrounding is irrelevant and distracts from the main point which again bears repeating: residents should not be forced to pay this kind of money for non-essential services.

Portia Weiss

Newport Heights

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