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Neighbors Power Down:
Utility Undergrounding, Issues Arising

February 2009 | by Art Olson, Primavera

Supplementary material exclusive to the website


One of the most impactful projects on the City’s active agenda is the undergrounding of neighborhood utilities. Over 450 Del Mar homes are currently being evaluated for what would amount to a project totaling over $12 million. The North Hills Undergrounding area is comprised of three assessment districts that cover much of the hill residences from Serpentine Drive on the north to Eighth Street on the south. The Sunset Undergrounding District covers most of the remaining hill homes north of Serpentine and east of Camino Del Mar. The planning and implementation process is a complex one, which began in June 2007 with an initial petition phase that gained City Council approval. Subsequent steps involve: utility design, assessment reports, neighborhood coordination, specification and bidding, balloting, public hearings and construction. The original schedule had projected that the assessment phase would be completed by the end of January, but according to Ernesto Aguilar, the City’s Assessment Engineer, delays in the utility designs have pushed that date back by at least 7 weeks.

While it is appears that an overwhelming majority of homeowners desire the safety, reliability and aesthetic benefits of utility undergounding, concerns have been raised regarding the assessment methodology, and visual impacts of the project. A group of homeowners in the Sunset District have questioned the fairness of the currently proposed Del Mar assessment formula as applied to their district. They argue that the current method, which was used in the now completed Ocean Pines Undergrounding District, is not suitable for the complex topography and lot boundaries of their district. Bill Lewis and Don Smith, members of this group, have analyzed the current methodology, comparing it with Solana Beach and other cities. An article by them is available on the Sandpiper web site (www.delmarsandpiper.org).

Another voiced concern regards the appearance of the utility boxes that will exist above ground after the undergrounding is completed. According to John Weare,

Illustrations by Bill Lewis

homeowner in the Ocean Pines district, while residents there are generally quite happy about the aesthetic improvement from pole and wire removal, they were surprised by the negative visual impact of the utility boxes installed in their neighborhood. Denise Nagata, another Ocean Pines resident and former Design Review Board Member agreed, and felt that most people were focused on assessment issues and did not consider the aesthetics of the utility boxes prior to their installation. Architect Bill Lewis has examined alternative designs to mitigate their stark industrial look while providing the required access, by screening the boxes with decorative walls that better harmonize with the character of the neighborhood.

Thus, while most Del Mar residents want to see their utilities undergrounded, some feel that in order to move successfully toward that goal there are issues of fairness and aesthetics that should be considered in light of others’ past experiences and individual neighborhood characteristics.

Supplementary material:

Note:  This material did not appear in the print edition.

Sunset District Analysis
Case Study A
Lot 14 Comparison
Case Study B
Lot 29 Comparison



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