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In one section of Mission Hills, residents are looking forward to the end of their neighborhood’s utility undergrounding process that’s taken nearly six years to finish. Now it’s almost complete — but a few homes and a complex wiring system connecting the project to another Mission Hills neighborhood are holding up the process.
The neighborhood’s frustrating experience, including missed project deadlines and some broken promises, is illustrating why the process often takes so long, and how new measures recently approved by the City Council could lessen delays in the future.
Residents are the ones who must deal with neighborhood disruptions from undergrounding – the process of moving overhead utility wires underground for enhanced aesthetics and safety. But the city says residents also contribute to the delays by dragging their feet on making electrical upgrades critical to the process.
SDG&E says the city tells them when and where to carry out the process: “We just do the work.”
Construction began in 2009 for an expanse of more than 30 streets in Mission Hills, a community overlooking Old Town Historic Park. The effort, known as Project Block 2E, is one of the larger utility undergrounding projects in the city and has cost approximately $9 million to date, according to SDG&E.
The city originally estimated in letters sent to Mission Hills residents in 2005 that Project Block 2E would be finished in April 2008. But the project didn’t even get off the ground until a year after the expected completion date, in 2009. A new target completion date was set for 2011, according to the city’s District 2 Master Plan (the project is now considered part of City Council District 3 after district lines were redrawn in 2011).
Then the completion date moved to 2013, then 2014, then 2015. SDG&E spokeswoman Allison Zaragoza initially told me there have been “various delays” for the project, but that telephone poles would be removed “as soon as one month from now.” But the pole removal date has now been adjusted again.
“We have met with the city and we have set a target date of June for overhead wires and pole removals,” Zaragoza told me a few days later.
City residents pay a surcharge to San Diego utility companies to fund undergrounding. Each month, SDG&E levies the charge under the line-item title “City of San Diego Franchise Fee Differential” on city residents’ bills. The money goes toward things like removing the wooden poles that support the cabling, in many cases increasing property value for the less-cluttered streets. The process has been controversial, with city residents in places like Talmadge and Kensington questioning whether the “ugly” aboveground boxes that replace the overhead wires and poles are any better. Other neighborhoods, including Mission Hills, say undergrounding can’t come fast enough, boxes and all.
SDG&E is currently completing the “cut-over” phase of the process for Project 2E, which must be completed before pole removal can begin. Workers power down the overhead lines and energize the grounded wires during this part of the process — but that can’t happen until a few remaining homes update their electrical paneling and SDG&E finishes up a similar process to make sure lights won’t go out in an adjacent neighborhood since it’s all connected by the overhead wiring.
Dave Emerson, a governmental liaison planner for SDG&E, said neighbors in Mission Hills east of Presidio Park depend on the setup for street lighting in their area.
“It’s like Christmas tree lighting,” he said. “If we stopped the feed to the first ‘light,’ all of them would go out.”
Emerson and Zaragoza visited Project 2E on April 1 to gauge the site’s progress. The visit revealed about four homes in need of paneling upgrades, which are on residents to take care of, Zaragoza said.
Following the visit, SDG&E pledged to coordinate with the residents’ electricians to get the paneling and other issues resolved to wrap up the nearly six-year project, but said no concrete plans have been made with the electricians as of yet.
Even so, the collaboration to upgrade electrical paneling and other issues will involve permitting and design plans before construction begins.
Despite this, Emerson said SDG&E should still be on track for the June pole removal deadline.
Many residents are frustrated that the process has taken so long.
Pam Amundson, a volunteer neighborhood watch captain for the community, said the city has been quick to respond to her concerns but collectively, Mission Hills residents are disappointed with SDG&E’s progress.
“It’s like, ‘Really?’ This project’s been going on at least eight years,” she said.
Amundson received a letter in 2005 from the city notifying her that certain required changes and upgrades could be performed by SDG&E for free within a certain time window. “Property owners who decline SDG&E’s offer,” the letter said, “will be notified that their existing overhead services will be disconnected and must arrange for the conversion of their property to be completed before April 2007 to avoid disruptions in their electrical, telecommunication and cable television services.”
“The implication was that if you don’t make the changes, you might find yourself without access to electricity, which, OK, seems fair to me, there’s some consequences,” Amundson said. “But it doesn’t seem like there were any teeth in the consequences because we’re now in April 2015.”
She said better communication from SDG&E could help allay residents’ frustrations. She has confidence, though, that SDG&E will come up with solutions and finish the project.
A recent recommendation made by the city’s Undergrounding Utilities Advisory Committee and approved by the City Council in March suggests that these issues, including the failure to meet completion timelines and a lapse in communication, might not be major problems for much longer.
Joe LaCava, chair of the committee and president of the Community Planners Committee, said the new process will include more communication between the city, residents and the utility companies at an early stage in the process. The process will also have a set system for construction and implementation so residents will know what to expect, and “promises will follow through.”
“Now we have a very formalized, structured process,” LaCava said. “You can see that each step of the way, this is the information we are going to present to the neighborhood, this is the goal to be accomplished at the first meeting … we think it’ll be very successful.”
City spokesman Tim Graham said there have been around 381 miles of undergrounding completed in the city, with more than a thousand left to go. The target deadline for all undergrounding projects in San Diego is 2067.