Hills Residents to Vote on Burying Power Lines

Tuesday July 20, 2004

High up in the North Berkeley Hills where crime is low, university encroachment distant, and a new out-of-scale high-rise apartment building inconceivable, one neighborhood is tackling a concern most Berkeley residents take for granted—power poles and their adjoining wires. 

Not only do the poles and wires obstruct some residents’ million-dollar views of the Golden Gate, but—more important, say some neighbors—a downed wire could electrocute someone in the case of a fire or earthquake, as happened in the Oakland fire of 1991. 

Concern over the freestanding utilities is so acute in one 105-home tract near the Kensington border that after three years of planning, residents are voting whether or not to tax themselves an estimated $2.3 million total to tear down the poles and bury the wires underground. 

In a first-of-its-kind procedure at tonight’s (Tuesday, July 20) City Council meeting, Northeast Berkeley neighbors will get their say at a public hearing, followed by a vote count with the results announced at the meeting. If 60 percent of the 105 homes support the plan, the council will be empowered to create Berkeley’s first undergrounding district. Every home owner in the district will have to pay a flat fee, on average $21,000, towards the undergrounding. 

The vote, however, which seemed like a slam dunk for undergrounding early on, now appears too close to call.  

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Cathy Moran, one of the neighbors backing undergrounding the utilities. 

Moran said the undergrounding drive grew out of a neighborhood disaster planning forum several years ago. In 2002, 79 homeowners in the 105-house tract that include Kentucky Avenue, Colorado Avenue, most of Florida Avenue, and parts of Maryland and Michigan avenues, contributed to a $196,000 fund to pay for design costs. 

Berkeley gets some public money to underground utilities on major arteries, but for residential areas, neighbors must pay the full costs of the project. In order to move the project forward, proponents have already managed to get 70 percent of property owners to express interest in the project and contribute money to the design. 

But Moran has seen neighborhood enthusiasm for undergrounding decline as cost estimates jumped. A City of Berkeley report issued in May, authored by city engineer Lorin Jensen, estimated the project would cost $3 million, about 50 percent higher than the original estimates. Even though bids from contractors have lowered the price to $2.3 million, questions abound if neighbors are willing to foot the bill. 

“People are really upset in that district,” said Councilmember Betty Olds. “They won’t vote for that.”  

Particularly galling to opponents of the plan was the City Council’s decision last June to lower the threshold for approval from 70 percent to 60 percent. 

“That was a major insult to many of us,” said Ruth King, an opponent of undergrounding. She said opponents were confident they could muster 30 percent of the vote and weren’t given adequate notice that the council was considering lowering the threshold. 

Under rules established by Proposition 18, passed by California voters in 1996, the council could have set the threshold as low as 50 percent. Instead councilmmebers chose to split the difference between their current 70 percent standard and a bare majority.  

Councilmember Miriam Hawley, who represents the neighbors, said she hoped for a decisive vote one way or the other. 

But King said the vote sent a message to neighbors that the council was intent on seeing the undergrounding district pass. 

“I resent that people are being so casual with my limited funds,” she said. “We’re already taxed up the yin yang here.”  

If her neighbors approve creation of the district, King said that she and other neighbors with a bay view, would have to pay for undergrounding through a thirty year bond at about $1,800 a year based on a 6.5 percent interest rate. For elderly or low-income residents, the city can put a lien on the house so they don’t have to make immediate payments. 

However, homeowners could stand to gain from undergrounding. Barbara Conheim a real estate agent with Berkeley Hills Realty, said removing poles and wires would definitely raise property values, possibly between $15,000 and $20,000, though she labeled the estimate a wild guess.  

“Just the appearance on the street without all those wires and polls would have an affect on the buyer,” she said. 

Conheim, though, acknowledged that homeowners with a view obstructed by wires would stand to gain the most from undergrounding.  

For equity’s sake, the city has divided the undergrounding district into three zones, each of which would pay different amounts. Homes with a view would be charged $24,000, homes without a view, but in the center of the district, would be charged $21,000, and homes on the edge of the district with wires and poles close by would pay about $18,000.  

City Clerk Sherry Kelly said that she has already received 70 of the 105 ballots. However, property owners can change their vote up until the end of the public hearing. Votes will be weighted so homes with a view count 1.15 and homes on the edge of the district count 0.85. 


Other Items 

Also at tonight’s council meeting, the council will have to approve ballot titles for three citizen-initiated measures that would make prostitution the city’s lowest police priority, ease restrictions on medical cannabis growers and distributors, and establish a tree board to regulate public trees in the city.  

A council majority opposes all three measures, and last week Mayor Tom Bates formed a subcommittee to make sure the city’s concerns were highlighted in the summaries that voters read at the ballot. Significant amendments to the ballot titles were circulated last week, though the final recommendation remains unknown. 

The council will also be asked to provide emergency funding up to $50,000 for the Jobs Consortium, a program to help homeless residents improve skills and find jobs. The Jobs Consortium shut its doors two weeks ago after a review from its chief funder, the department of Housing and Urban Development, determined the nonprofit owed the federal government agency roughly $1.2 million in back payments. 

In a land use issue, the council is being asked tonight to affirm a Landmarks Preservation Commission decision to include the structure and site at 2104 Sixth St. as part of the new Oceanview Sisterna Historic District. The property owner, Gary Feiner, who wants to remodel the building, has appealed the decision. Neighbors are concerned that his design might not fit in with the fabric of the district. 

The council is also expected tonight to approve the Environmental Impact Report for the Draft Southside Plan. The current estimate for the report is $329,328—more than double the price for a typical environmental review. Current Planning Manager Mark Rhoades told the Planning Commission that traffic and transportation studies had jacked up the price. Although UC Berkeley has worked with the city on the plan, Rhoades said at the moment the city appears set to pay the full cost of the review.