If Palo Alto residents want underground utility boxes, they’ll have to foot the bill
If Palo Alto residents want underground utility boxes, they’ll have to foot the bill.Photo: . Pictures may be protected by copyright.
Residents have pushed back against a city plan to replace underground systems with visible utility boxes.
Following more than a year of debate, Palo Alto is giving residents adamantly opposed to above-ground utility boxes an option to maintain their underground systems — pay for it themselves. The Palo Alto City Council voted 6-1 Monday night — with Councilwoman Lydia Kou dissenting — to give residents in neighborhoods with fully underground utility systems that are in need of replacement an avenue to pay an additional cost to keep it underground instead of installing above-ground utility boxes. The city’s utilities officials say the new process will allow residents to obtain the more-expensive underground systems in their neighborhood, which cost double the price, without burdening the other ratepayers. But the decision dealt a blow to residents in the city’s Green Acres neighborhood, who contributed funds more than four years ago to establish a fully underground system and intended to keep it that way. Michael Maurier, a Green Acres homeowner, who called the new process “unrealistic, unworkable and unacceptable,” said the city’s utility department has forced residents to make a “hostile choice.” In the city’s oldest utility districts, the equipment — both transformers and cables — were buried underground in vaults. But decades later, the aging equipment is in need of replacement. And due to safety, cost-effectiveness and reliability, the city’s utilities department’s new standard is to keep the wires and cables underground but move the transformer boxes above ground on mounted pads. Under the city’s new regulation, residents in neighborhoods with fully underground utility systems who do not want above-ground utility boxes can request “special facilities” — accommodations that go beyond what the city’s utility department generally offers. As such, residents in each neighborhood slated for a utility system replacement will be given 45 days after notification from the city to submit a petition with at least 60 percent of residents in support of an underground system, along with a payment method to cover engineering costs. After receiving the petition and initial funds, the city would then provide the residents with a written cost estimate for the underground system and the neighborhood will have 90 days to cough up the additional costs between the underground installation and standard, above-ground system. In Green Acres, city staff estimates that installing and maintaining an underground system would cost about $475,000 more than the above-ground utility box system. After unveiling the plan for Green Acres about a year ago, residents expressed concerns regarding safety, appearance, property values and the city’s failure to acknowledge the investment they already made in their underground system. The neighborhood’s electric system was buried underground in 1973 following a deal struck by the city and property owners. That deal outlined that the city would pay 75 percent of the costs and the property owners would pick up the remaining 25 percent. Green Acres homeowners say the new city process would force the residents to pay for their system twice — a blatant disregard for their investment. “There has been no recognition of — or accounting for — the fact that we invested in our fully underground systems,” Resident Nina Bell said Monday. “…As an investor, how would you feel about that?” Although some councilmembers were sympathetic to the residents’ concerns, they decided their investments weren’t made in perpetuity, and therefore it would not be fair to make the rest of ratepayers foot the bill for the neighborhood to bypass the city’s new standard. “For rightly or wrongly, the investment return has been five decades of the life of use of this equipment underground,” Mayor Eric Filseth said Monday. “It does wear out and it has a useful life, which means it has to be reinvested in.” The Green Acres neighborhood, which consists of 100 homes, has eight transformer boxes. If residents choose not to go through the petition process, city staff said they will work with residents to try and camouflage the above-ground utility boxes to make them less visible from the road and sidewalks. Green Acres is not the only neighborhood with transformers and other utility equipment situated underground in vaults. The underground systems were installed in the city’s first 33 utility districts starting in 1965. And although many of those systems have already been replaced with standard utility boxes, nine of those districts, which consist of 1,200 properties and 160 transformers, still need to be rebuilt.