Officials looks to make city safer, more aesthetically pleasing with underground electric lines

Officials looks to make city safer, more aesthetically pleasing with underground electric lines

City officials are pushing to place electric utilities
underground in hopes of improving city safety and aesthetic.
Developers, however, are pushing back, worried about the increased
costs of doing so.
City officials are pushing to place electric utilities underground in hopes of improving city safety and aesthetic. Developers, however, are pushing back, worried about the increased costs of doing so.

City staff hopes proposed revisions to its underground utilities ordinance will meet everyone’s needs, as it contains increased undergrounding requirements along with provisions to hold off on such work under certain circumstances.

“I think everything we’re proposing is fairly significant,” City Engineer Rick Smelser said. “We’re trying to make it convenient for both the city and the development community.”

The new ordinance would require undergrounding of utilities in alleyways, where undergrounding was not previously required. It also would require new lighting to be installed if streetlights and alleyway lights are mounted on poles. At the same time, it would provide developers with more leeway by allowing certain undergrounding work to be deferred, such as in cases in which other surrounding land owners have yet to develop adjacent properties.

For instance, deferments could be allowed for redevelopment projects and for technical issues, such as when undergrounding also is required for adjacent properties or when the final location of nearby undergrounding cannot yet be determined. In addition, properties that stand on corner lots with one corner pole could remain until the properties across the street are developed.

Deferred agreements would come to an end when adjacent properties are developed, when the city determines that the reasons for such agreements no longer exist or 20 years after the agreement is initiated.

The City Council discussed the ordinance, which was last revised in 2004, at a March 15 study session. Smelser said he would love to have a revised ordinance in place before the end of the year and certainly before the next wave of development takes off in Gilroy.

“We’re trying to work with the developer to make it win-win for everybody,” Smelser said. “It is definitely a benefit from a cost-share standpoint and doing it all at one time. Obviously, the idea of saving money is best for everyone.”

The ordinance also would require concealment of transformers, switches and splice boxes if they are deemed unsafe. All above-ground electric telephone and cable television equipment would need to be hidden from public view.

All new and existing service lines would be placed underground with redevelopment projects.

“Ultimately, the goal is to underground everything,” Smelser said.

The city has required undergrounding of its utilities as part of its city code since 1989. City officials say that undergrounding not only improves the appearance of an area, it reduces PG&E maintenance costs for the trimming of trees near power lines and improves public safety during fires, earthquakes and high winds.

“The rationale (for such ordinances) throughout California is that undergrounding utilities is really a public safety issue,” City Administrator Tom Haglund said during the March 15 study session.

Smelser said this week that aesthetic improvements were a secondary benefit.

Councilwoman Cat Tucker said during the March 15 meeting that she would like the term “redevelopment” to be better defined.

City Engineer Rick Smelser defined redevelopment as work that requires tearing down part of a building and then constructing something. However, he said that could be further defined in the ordinance.

Mayor Al Pinheiro said during the study session that the 30 minutes allotted for the discussion on undergrounding was not enough time to fully delve into the subject. As a result, the council requested that the subject be put on an agenda for an April 19 meeting.

Why should I care?

Anyone who conducts a redevelopment project, such as demolishing part of a building and doing construction, might need to pay the cost of putting utilities underground. However, there also are more opportunities for developers to hold off on paying those fees until other surrounding property owners are ready to develop. If developers do need to pay the cost of undergrounding utilities, this could increase the price of the developed property.

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