Newport Heights Neighborhood Divided on Undergrounding

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Newport Heights residents feuding over a plan to underground utility lines in the neighborhood will have to wait until Tuesday to find out if the Newport Beach City Council will allow it to move forward.

This debate turns on whether to establish two underground utility assessment districts that would place a special tax on 300 parcel owners’ property tax bills to pay for the removal of utility poles.

The first district is bound by 15th Street, Irvine Avenue, Cliff Drive, and Tustin Avenue. The other is bound by 15th Street, Tustin Avenue, Cliff Drive and Riverside Avenue.

The city council voted 3-1 to continue this discussion at its next meeting. Councilman Tony Petros voted against the motion, Mayor Diane Dixon was absent, Councilmen Keith Curry recused himself because he owns stock in AT&T, and Kevin Muldoon recused himself because he works for a telecommunications company.

A group of homeowners circulated a petition for the city to spend $115,000 on an engineer’s report that would determine the amount to be paid by each parcel. That engineering firm would also be responsible for scheduling public hearings and prepare assessment ballots.

But before the city goes through this expense, Petitioners must obtain 60 percent approval from property owners, according to the city’s guidelines.

At the May 10 council meeting, proponents had 51.23 percent after 18 voters rescinded their ballots.

As the district representative for Newport Heights, Petros said the decision to not support under grounding was a tough one.

“This is, as someone said, tearing the heart of the heights out,” he commented.

Petros said that he supports undergrounding utility lines, noting that it’s included in every new community. But he also pointed out that the proponents of the two districts have not met the city’s standard of reaching 60 percent support for their petition to have the city pay for an engineer’s report hammering out the costs and hold a vote.

“There has been some talk here, and I’m sure when this is all done I will be an anti-vote guy, but this is not a question of the ability to cast your vote or cast your ballot,” he said. “It’s following the rules. We have a set of rules that we would follow and if you can pass that set of rules then you can exercise right to vote.”

Sara D’Elia supported the city moving forward on the engineer’s report. She highlighted that her neighbors have difficulty backing out of their garages because of the utility poles.

“I think all this would do going forward is getting information so we could make an educated decision,” D’Elia said.

Councilman Scott Peotter said he likes undergrounding utilities because it provides a cleaner and safer neighborhood. In his Corona Del Mar neighborhood he’s always taking an extra three-point turn because he has a utility pole next to his house.

He also noted that the guideline for 60 percent approval on an assessment district petition is not a hard number and was slated to come back to the city council for review.

“It sounds to me like there is a lot of misinformation out there and one of things that bringing it to an election is going to do is we’re going to have an engineer’s report that’s going to say this is the maximum amount of tax your parcel is going to have and this is what your share is going to be,” Peotter said.

Richard Weiss, a 25-year resident of Newport Heights, said that he is discouraged that the council would consider reducing the threshold for approval of the petition from 60 to 50 percent.

“If you put it to the voters that they’re going to get a $20,000 tax and rip up their homes, they’re not going to go for it,” Weiss said.

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