Will Atherton residents shell out to put power lines underground? | March 10, 2023 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - March 10, 2023

Will Atherton residents shell out to put power lines underground?

Recent storms led to 'renewed interest' in relocating utility lines away from trees

by Angela Swartz

Emergency alerts warning of downed trees, downed utility lines and road closures have been a constant each time a winter storm has hit Atherton this winter.

Noticing an uptick in comments on Nextdoor about moving utility lines from power poles and placing them underground to reduce storm-related damage, City Manager George Rodericks is suggesting residents consider forming underground utility districts.

Since 1966, the town has required that utility services for any newly constructed dwelling run underground from the utility pole to the structure, according to a Feb. 28 newsletter from Rodericks. Though this requirement does not remove poles from the right-of-way, it does reduce the clutter of overhead wires.

Underground power lines may not cause fires, but they can be damaged by lighting strikes, earthquakes, flooding and construction excavation, PG&E has said.

Atherton has seen several incidents involving the poles. Last month, a tree hit a utility pole on Selby Lane in Atherton, closing traffic in both directions from Austin Avenue to Logan Lane, according to a police news bulletin. A car hit a power pole on Marsh Road, closing it in both directions from Middlefield Road to Fair Oaks Avenue, according to a Feb. 21 bulletin.

Former City Council candidate Greg Conlon suggested the town look into undergrounding wires during a Jan. 11 City Council meeting after the New Year's storms to prevent future power outages. The town could choose to put the issue before voters to decide.

"I think I was out (of power) for about 25 hours," Conlon said. "It emphasizes the point that electrical wires in Atherton are a real hazard. I just think that it's appropriate for the city to bury the wires on a sequenced basis over a number of years. I would suggest a 20-year program. It would probably be $20 to $30 million and I think it's worth it. If somebody got killed, or if several people got killed, I think it would prove the point that it's too late, you should have done it earlier."

Forming utility districts

Underground Utility Districts can be created in a number of ways, but the most common is through the formation of three types of districts.

The first, called a "Rule 20A District," is initiated by a local jurisdiction and draws on Rule 20A funds. These funds can only be used on primary thoroughfares and cannot be used to underground utilities to private property. The town does not have viable Rule 20A funds, according to Rodericks.

Rule 20B and 20C Districts are initiated by property owners, who would be financially responsible for the cost via the formation of an assessment district. Costs to complete the utility work will vary based on the number of property owners participating, the topography of the service area and any specific design or engineering requirements from service providers. Once the residents form a district, all utility providers are obligated to participate and underground their infrastructure, but the costs will fall to district participants.

Districts can take anywhere from three to five years (or more) to complete, Rodericks noted.

"In my experience, I have seen individual property owners' costs range from $15,000 to $50,000," he said. "Costs can be assessed over a long-term funding horizon, such as 20-30 years."

Email Staff Writer Angela Swartz at [email protected]


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