June 2010 home page

  Riding Out The Storm
Art Olson | Avenida Primavera


Photo illustration by Art Olson with apologies to Willem van de Velde the Younger (ca. 1650-1707).


Undergrounding the utility lines in two Del Mar neighborhoods seemed like a good idea at the time, but the formation of the assessment districts to pay for the projects was rejected by a majority of property owners in the April vote. The City had expended $311,800 in engineering and administrative costs to establish the assessments and bring the issue to the voters, and it had failed. What happened, and what may have been done differently? While hindsight may be 20/20, there are lessons to be learned for all involved:

1) One size doesn’t fit all – even in a city as small as Del Mar. The assessment methodology adopted by the City Council followed that which was applied successfully to the Ocean/Pines undergrounding project. Early on, UCSD Math Professor Don Smith presented a careful analysis that indicated that the proposed methodology was unfair in the hill neighborhoods of Del Mar’s north end and proposed another methodology that would be more equitable. A cautious Council decided it was better to apply the previous methodology, than to risk appearance of inconsistency. Many property owners perceived their proposed assessments to be unfair, and complained. While there were a few individual property “tweaks” there remained a general sense that the methodology applied to the two districts was flawed.

2) Too big to succeed? -- The North Hills Undergrounding district started out as an effort that covered only a few streets, but ballooned to 321 properties as the idea spread to an ever-widening circle, and the promise of economies of scale became a driving rationale. The Sunset Undergrounding District with 145 parcels was formed at the same time, with similar impetus. While Ocean/Pines had about 80 parcels with a more homogeneous mix of residents, the scale of the North Hills/Sunset districts meant a larger pool of residents with diverse interests, means, and motivations. It also made neighbor-to-neighbor communication more difficult and fragmented.

3) Timing is everything – When these undergrounding initiatives started, the economy was booming, property values were sky-high, people felt confident and were spending freely. By the time of the vote, everything had changed. Even those who could afford the assessment were scaling back spending, and reassessing their financial priorities. The argument that the construction downturn made undergrounding less costly, even if accurate, was not sufficient to change the general economic mindset of the property owners at the time.

4) You can’t always get what you want -- The “Del Mar Way” still works. We remain a city of active, vocal citizens who are as concerned with means as well as ends. Issues are aired and debated with passion. While change may be slow, Del Mar residents work hard to retain the city’s charm and unique character. The process highlighted disparities between many long-time residents and those who came more recently. Tempers may have flared, but intentions were honest and, typically, divisions mend, and we all move ahead.

What now? While most Del Mar residents would still like to see the poles and wires disappear from their view, other approaches to this goal could be pursued. Smaller independent neighborhoods where perceived benefits are commonly shared, could undertake the project on its own. While economic diversity may still be a factor, neighbor-to-neighbor accommodation would be more manageable. At the other end of the scale, if the Council prioritizes undergrounding as a general safety goal for the entire City, a different model of funding may be pursued.



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