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Like many Kensington residents, Don Taylor loves his neighborhood’s 1920s charm — its curving streets lined with soaring palm trees, Spanish-style homes and Craftsman bungalows. And he loves its lampposts, the better part of a century old, which look like the kind a rain-drenched Gene Kelly would love to swing an arm around.

But the lampposts are at risk, and the recent retiree is scrambling to convince his neighbors to open their wallets to save them.

Parts of Kensington are scheduled to have their power lines moved underground in coming years. In the process, the city of San Diego will add new street lights and replace others. But the city has told residents that unless they pay for the more expensive decorative lampposts, the fixtures could be swapped out for cheaper, generic street lights.

So with help from city officials, Taylor and a group of neighbors are asking Kensington residents to essentially tax themselves. They’ve proposed carving the neighborhood into five zones and holding a vote in each of them so property owners can decide whether to tack an extra $75 charge onto their annual property tax bills. The money would be spent to install and maintain decorative lamps and replace the generic lights that have already crept onto their streets.

The special zones, called maintenance assessment districts, have long been a way for neighborhood residents to pay for special services the city would be unlikely to provide even in prosperous times — like sidewalk power washing or litter patrols.

But as budget problems have eroded the city’s ability to provide basic services, the zones have become an ever more common tool that neighborhoods have used just to cover the city’s shortfalls. The city has created more than 50 of them in neighborhoods from Rancho Bernardo to Otay Mesa. Property owners in those neighborhoods have agreed to pay special fees — totaling nearly $13 million annually — to fund services like tree trimming, graffiti cleanup and more frequent trash pickup.

In Kensington, many street lights have been in place since the neighborhood was developed early last century. Over the years some have been lost to damage and replaced with generic fixtures. As the city moves to underground the neighborhood’s electric lines, residents have been told that unless they form a maintenance assessment district, more historic lights could be uprooted and replaced with generic fixtures that soar into the air before jutting out over the road to cast a murky orange glow.

Some residents don’t want to take the chance.

“It’s like playing Russian roulette,” said Jan Bart, a Kensington resident who is collecting signatures to qualify the special tax zones for a neighborhood vote.

Ornamental street lights may not be as critical a priority for city officials as restoring fire stations or library hours. Still, the ongoing episode in Kensington has highlighted one of the many small ways that City Hall’s financial woes are threatening to unravel neighborhoods’ unique fabrics, leaving it to residents to stitch them back together. In one of San Diego’s most picturesque neighborhoods, some residents fear not passing the hat could diminish a point of pride.

At a neighborhood planning board meeting last Wednesday, Pam Hubbell, a member, told a packed audience that she understood why her neighbors felt the special taxes were needed to save their lights. But she was upset they had proposed splitting the neighborhood into five different zones to do so.

“I feel like we are Kensington. We’re not five areas,” she said. “We don’t have five community characters.”

Some parts of Kensington need more street light improvements than others. The effort’s organizers believe splitting the neighborhood into five zones is their best way to ensure that reluctant residents in one part don’t derail the process for residents in another.

A similar effort last year failed because it lacked wide support.

Neighborhood leaders tried to establish a district to pay for services like tree trimming, sidewalk sweeping and the historic street lights. But the effort fizzled when proponents failed to get enough signatures to hold a vote.

“There was a lot of resistance because people thought the city should be paying for things,” said Tom Hebrank, a community leader who pushed to establish the district.

David Moty, the current chairman of the neighborhood planning group, said residents “held the hope, maybe true or false, that the city would once again take these services up.”

Now Taylor and a group of neighbors are giving it another shot and hoping a more focused pitch will gain more support: the money will be used for the beloved street lights. Nothing else.

Even that proposal faces early stumbling blocks. Because the proposal is for five small zones, total collections in each will be modest, and accumulating enough money to pay for capital improvements will take years. The law requires residents to hire a consultant to work out the details for the collections in each of the zones. Those reports usually cost between $20,000 and $30,000 per zone.

The city will loan that money. But it must be paid back once the collections begin. Proponents estimate it could be years before the zones accumulate enough money to restore all their historic lights. They expect the lights to cost $6,000 to $9,000 apiece compared to $1,500 for the generic versions, though the city will pay up to the cost of the basic lights.

“There is no quick fix,” Taylor said. “In some cases, this will take decades.”

Taylor, Bart and their allies feel there isn’t much choice.

“It’s one of those situations where we can’t wait anymore,” Taylor said. “Waiting for something else to solve this problem is like watching it slowly decay.”

Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?

Contact him directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528.

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Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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