Newport Needs to Improve Assessment District Process

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As Yogi Berra might have said about undergrounding assessment districts in Newport Beach, “It’s deja vu all over again!” 

Proposed districts continue to be fought over while the city pretends to be impartial.

Undergrounding is being debated once again, this time for proposed Districts 114 and 114b. 

Councilman Tony Petros called for unity in the undergrounding district communities.  Here are some reasons why this probably will not happen:

•           Utility poles are not necessarily attractive, but the poles were there when we bought our houses. They are not an issue for most homeowners.

•           Undergrounding disagreements can wreck neighborhood relationships; some are never repaired. It is a lot for one neighbor to ask another to pay $25,000 plus connection costs. Imagine the uproar if the state or federal government levied a tax of that size on homeowners.      

•           Those not in favor of undergrounding utility poles feel the city is working against them because the process is veiled in secrecy. The city never officially informs homeowners that a district is being formed – you often find out from neighbors.  Neighborhood gossip with big financial implications.

•           Proponents of undergrounding can collect petition signatures from homeowners without explaining the whole process and with the help of city staff, tailor the borders of the proposed district to favor an undergrounding decision. This is precisely what happened to us during formation of District 117 last year. A large swath of homes that objected to the district formation was eliminated from District 117…in secret.

•           For those against paying this $25,000 fee, having a few minutes to address a city council meeting is not enough and is not fair.

•           Not all residents of Newport Beach have deep pockets. During our District 117 experience, many of our neighbors asked us questions like, “If I had that kind of money to spare, don’t you think I would fix up my house?” 

If Councilman Petros wants unity, here are some actions the city can take to make assessment districts slightly less contentious:

•           Inform all homeowners concerned that a potential district is being formed.  These homeowners should be told how to obtain details of the proposed district.

•           Do as some cities have done – ask that all those who sign a petition to form a district give a small amount of “earnest” money so that the signature gatherers and the city know the signatories understand the assessment process and the potential financial costs involved.

•           The city should follow its own rules for undergrounding. In District 117, it went forward to a ballot with only 49 percent of the required petition signatures and we were denied an outreach meeting. Quoting a city employee, “60 percent is only a guideline” and “We do not want to face all those angry people at an outreach meeting”. This ‘fast track’ approach is again being proposed for Districts 114 and 114b.

It is possible to have a fair and peaceful undergrounding process. The cities of Anaheim and San Diego are two examples. Newport Beach will continue to destroy the goodwill in many neighborhoods unless it decides to improve its assessment district process.

Susan and Gerald Ostrowsky / Corona del Mar

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