District to Vote On Putting Wires Underground: By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday September 21, 2004

For those who can’t wait until November to see democracy in action, Tuesday’s City Council meeting will include a first-of-its-kind vote. 

Two months after the council canceled a planned election amid concern that ballots contained outdated and insufficient information, the residents of 105 homes near the Kensington border will vote on whether to tax themselves $2.3 million to tear down utility poles and bury the wires underground. The vote tally will be announced at the meeting. 

The stakes aren’t just high for residents in the Thousand Oaks Heights Undergrounding District who would pay a household average of about $21,000 to underground utilities. With little public money available to pay for burying utilities underground, the City Council was hoping that the district would be the first of many to underground utilities for the city. 

“I’d like to see it go through,” said Councilmember Miriam Hawley, who represents the district. 

Undergrounding utilities is seen as a safety measure that limits the risk of fires and long-term service outages in the case of an earthquake.  

But residents are torn on the issue, with supporters arguing that the view enhancements and safety measures would improve home values and the quality of life in the district, and opponents insisting the district would place a financial burden on some residents so wealthier households could get a bay view free from obstructive utility wires. 

More than 70 percent of district residents have already shelled out a combined $183,945 for an initial study of the project, but enthusiasm waned when the cost estimates skyrocketed up to $3 million and the council, at the urging of undergrounding supporters, lowered the threshold of the votes needed for passage from 70 percent to 60 percent. Each household gets one vote. 

After a majority of residents on both sides of the debate urged the council at a July public hearing to restore the 70 percent threshold as an act of good faith, the council opted to require a two-thirds majority for passage of the district. State law allows it to set the approval threshold as low as 50 percent. 

Also updated projections have cut the estimated price down to $2.3 million. Households that have better views and are more centrally located in the district would pay a greater share of the cost. 

Earlier this month, the city mailed brochures to neighbors explaining financing schemes for homeowners who couldn’t pay for the undergrounding. 

“I wasn’t amused,” said Rosemary Green, who has lived in her house since 1970. “The degree of insensitivity these people have for neighbors who have all of their equity in their homes is unbelievable.” 

Carol Bledsoe maintained that the safety benefits of burying utilities outweighed the costs, but after serving on the undergrounding committee since its inception, she has no idea how the vote will go. 

“It should be very interesting,” she said.