Above ground or below? The fight over utility boxes comes to Green Acres

Residents push back against Palo Alto proposal to place transformers in concrete 'pad mounts' or charge property owners for undergrounding

Utility wires may be out of sight in Green Acres, where they are tucked away in underground vaults, but they are hardly out of mind for the residents in the quiet south Palo Alto neighborhood.

The city has been talking for more than a year about the need to replace the neighborhood's aged electric system, which has been buried in underground vaults since its installation in 1973. As part of the project, Palo Alto Utilities is proposing to take transformers out of their vaults and mounting them on concrete pads while leaving all the wires and conduits underground.

The proposal has triggered heated opposition from Green Acre I's homeowners, who are arguing that their financial contributions to an underground system more than four decades ago effectively entitles them to keep the entire system underground in perpetuity. Under that 1972 deal, the city and the property owners agreed to an arrangement in which all the utilities were placed underground, with the city paying 75% of the costs and the owners paying the remaining 25%. The property's owners' share totaled about $43,000, roughly the equivalent of $265,000 in today's money.

The dispute between Palo Alto Utilities and the homeowners bubbled up this week, when residents persuaded the city to defer revising some regulations in the utilities code pertaining to special facilities. And it will take center stage next Monday, when the City Council considers a new rule that would allow property owners to request special accommodations, provided they are willing to foot the bill for installing and maintaining the new equipment.

The council hearing will be the culmination of more than a year of debate, revised plans and threats of litigation. Kent Mitchell, an attorney representing the Green Acres I residents, argued in an April letter that when the installation of the underground equipment was approved, there was no indication that the undergrounding was not permanent.

Instead, the council's actions created the reasonable expectation that the city would maintain and repair the equipment and, as owner of the facilities, spread the cost evenly to all property owners much in the same way it does for road maintenance and drainage facilities, Mitchell argued.

"It was eminently reasonable for Greenacres I owners to expect the same for their undergrounded facilities, given that they paid a substantial sum for such undergrounding privileges and property benefits in the first instance," Mitchell wrote.

Mitchell argued that because the property owners bought the right to have underground utilities, it would be "unlawful and a violation of their rights for the City to charge them for the perceived extra cost of maintaining underground facilities as compared to above ground facilities."

"It would also be a breach of good faith and fair dealing for the City to do so because of its desire to save maintained money, and thereby deny our clients the financial and aesthetic benefits of undergrounding they contracted and paid for in full."

But the city's utilities officials are arguing that keeping transformers underground would make the system both more expensive and less reliable than having a standard pad-mounted installation. Greg McKernan, a senior engineer at Utilities Department, said at the April 9 meeting of the Utilities Advisory Commission that two districts have already seen their underground utilities rebuilt, with transformers shifted to pad-mounted equipment. About seven currently have fully underground equipment, he said.

One advantage of having pad-mounted equipment, he said, is that it makes it easier to locate the source of a power outage. Underground vaults are sometimes filled with water, which needs to be pumped out before equipment can be inspected. Pad-mounted equipment does not fill with water, he said.

"While it may sometimes be technically feasible to install equipment in underground vaults, this sort of fully subsurface installation is substantially more expensive than a standard pad-mounted installation, and — in the view of CPAU staff — is likely to be less reliable and more costly to maintain and operate than a standard installation," a new report from Utilities Department states.

Debra Lloyd, assistant director of the engineering division, said utilities staff have tried to address residents' concerns by considering less visible places for the pad-mounted equipment.

"What we heard back was, 'We don't want to talk about pad-mounts; We want to talk about fully undergrounded,'" Lloyd said.

The Utilities Advisory Commission recommended on April 9 allowing the residents to have a say in whether their utilities should remain fully undergrounded. If the council approves a new proposal from Utilities Department, each neighborhood where the utilities are being rebuilt will have a chance to request a fully undergrounded system, provided they pay the extra costs.

Even that proposal, however, is facing a rough reception in Green Acres I, where residents are characterizing it as a bait-and-switch by the Utilities Department. Several residents addressed the council on the topic this week and many more sent emails to the council, protesting the plan to either replace the underground transformers with pad-mounted ones or make the neighbors foot the bill for a fully undergrounded system.

Michael Maurier, who lives in the neighborhood, called the utilities plan "entirely unrealistic, wholly unworkable and unacceptable."

"Green Acres I property owners paid to have their wiring, transformers and switches all placed FULLY underground," Maurier wrote. "They are invested in our system and thus are partial owners. This is a documented fact. The CPAU and those that support their position are taking away something that Green Acres I residents OWN."

Resident Ning Mosberger-Tan said the neighbors are "strongly against CPAU's plan to move the switches and transformers above the ground in our neighborhood."

"It'll be aesthetically devastating with potential negative impact on the property value," Mosberger-Tan wrote.

Under the proposed rule change, neighborhoods where utilities are getting upgraded will have 45 days after notification from the city to submit a petition showing at least 60% of the parcels in the utility undergrounding district support a fully undergrounded system. They will also have to submit a payment to cover engineering costs for developing the underground system.

After the city receives the petition and the payments, it would provide the neighborhood with either a written estimate for the underground installation or a finding that such an installation is not practicable. The neighborhood will then have 90 days to provide the city a full payment for the cost difference between underground installation and the standard type.

In the case of Green Acres I, staff estimates that an underground installation would cost about $200,000 more than a standard installation. Ongoing costs of ownership are estimated to add another $275,000 over the 30-year life of the equipment. Under the staff proposal, the 15 property owners in the Green Acres I district would pay the full $475,000 in incremental costs. The remaining $420,000 (the cost of a standard installation) would be covered by the broader base of City of Palo Alto Utilities ratepayers.

The commission generally supported staff's recommended approach, with Commissioner A.C. Johnston noting that a fully underground system is a "specific benefit to your neighborhood."

"The rest of the ratepayers don't share in that benefit," Johnston said. "So I think it's fair to have the neighborhood share the additional cost of undergrounding — if that's their choice."

Former Commissioner Judith Schwartz disagreed and said allowing neighbors to dictate what their utility system will look like would set a bad precedent — one that will go beyond Green Acres I and that could apply to other types of utilities equipment. The debate isn't about underground equipment, she said. It's about whether neighborhoods "get to dictate to the utilites how to do it."

"I think the idea of having individual neighborhoods decide — make engineering decisions, — strikes me as problematic," Schwartz said.


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13 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2019 at 8:42 am

This has to be a con.

For the rest of us, we lose power due to mylar balloons, seagulls, squirrels, birds, geese, falling limbs, tree branches, etc. When we lose power utilities have to send out crews in all weathers and all times of day and night, to make repairs. Every time we have a storm, utilities workers are on call and probably getting overtime. Then of course there is the routine tree trimming that has to be done. Even this week, PA Utilities tweeted of an outage on Alma and Meadow due to a bird, and this was not worthy enough news for PA Weekly to report. A power outage is such an every day occurrence that it is no longer newsworthy. Recently the goose who flew into a powerline had its picture all over the internet.

We are the center of Silicon Valley and we are subject to losing power due to wildlife touching powerlines. Even third world countries have more reliable power supplies!

We need to get more powerlines underground. It is costing us real money when we can't depend on our home power supplies. Many people working from home need reliable power to have conference calls with business contacts in other countries or to download products for international deadlines.

No excuses.

7 people like this
Posted by BobH
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 13, 2019 at 11:21 am

BobH is a registered user.

If it wasn't clear, this is not about if power lines should be underground, it is about should the transformers also be underground or on pads above ground. My understanding is that it's a lot more expensive to have the transformers underground and they are less reliable. They have to be in vaults and when it rains a lot, they fill up with water.

I live in a neighborhood where the power lines are above ground. If the folks in green acres get their way, it's going to further delay moving the power lines underground in the neighborhoods where they are not underground today. Not a good tradeoff in my view.

25 people like this
Posted by midtown senior
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 13, 2019 at 11:33 am

midtown senior is a registered user.

Don't we "south of the border" Palo Alto homeowners deserve the same underground power lines as those "north of the Oregon Expressway border?" WE all pay the same rates, but are not treated to the same facilities.
South of the border power lines look like those in a third world country.

6 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 13, 2019 at 11:54 am

I’m on the “north side” and there’s powerlines all over my neighborhood.

5 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 14, 2019 at 4:45 pm

The former city commissioner Judith Schwartz is quoted in this article saying the debate is not about whether equipment should or could be underground but whether neighborhoods "get to dictate to the utilities how to do it."

Yet another a City Hall person thinking government employees always know better than:
-local voters
-contracts between a neighborhood and the the City such as Green Acres I's contract with the City to keep its utilities underground, or
-the historically significant CC&Rs at the neighborhood around North and Southampton, a local first to underground utility lines for aesthetic and safety reasons.

Allow this Green Acres "must-be" above ground transformer boxes on only a "small few impacted families" I hear City Hall people arguing and next thing we know, another technology will come along "requiring" the City to grab more private land or airspace impacting other neighbors. Chipping away piecemeal to "condition" the people-sheep to do what the dictator-wolf wants. Works every time, no?

At this rate, every Palo Alto home will have a humming transformer, cell box on a high pole, Big Eye surveillance sensors, and Big Voice 2-way sound system on their own private land or a neighbor's next door. Get ready for the patchwork of beta test humming boxes to service all those boxes and also those to manage the self-driving cars, delivery trucks, social credit/homeland security surveillance unless a majority of Palo Alto neighbors say, "NO!" loud now.

2 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 15, 2019 at 9:10 am

"Don't we "south of the border" Palo Alto homeowners deserve the same underground power lines as those "north of the Oregon Expressway border?" WE all pay the same rates, but are not treated to the same facilities."

There are above ground lines all over Old Palo Alto.

"South of the border power lines look like those in a third world country."

Sounds like a personal problem, not a utilities issue.

2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 15, 2019 at 10:50 am

Unfortunately, the article is long on anecdotes and short on data -- cost comparisons, how much per household per month the underground configuration costs amortized over its lifetime. We all are paying for this-- maybe we all would like the entire city to have underground utilities -- how much would it add to our monthly bills? (OBTW, why don't vaults have battery-backup-operated sump pumps to keep them pumped out during flooding?)

(High-density) office/industrial parks use underground utilities and vaults, so, at larger scales, it obviously is superior. At what (low) density does the underground configuration become cost-prohibitive? We don't have the data to understand the trade-offs.

9 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 15, 2019 at 2:59 pm

Seems like most posters did not even read the story.

The power lines will be underground. That is not in question.
The transformers will be on a pad on the ground (in a box on the ground). Putting the transformer underground is a servicing and failure problem.

The article is about the residents objecting to the transformer boxes.

The residents are being unreasonable and conflating the issue to confuse the community (as evidenced by the irate posters complaining about telephone poles and discrimination.)

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 15, 2019 at 5:27 pm

Today there is another power outage in Palo Alto, this time caused by a balloon in powerlines.

1 person likes this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 17, 2019 at 8:49 am

DTN Paul is a registered user.

So a neighborhood paid just $43K nearly 50 years ago, and they believe they are entitled to underground facilities paid for and maintained by everyone else in perpetuity, lest they be struck by an "aesthetically devastating" situation, for which the only recourse for them is to sue the city, thus costing us even more money?

It's almost comical in its unreasonableness.

1 person likes this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 17, 2019 at 8:56 am

DTN Paul is a registered user.

Just for fun, I would just like to reflect on the words "aesthetically devastating" for a moment.

It's like Ning Mosberger-Tan wanted to say "devastating" by itself, but then realized that using the word for something this trivial would be an insult to people, say in the Bahamas, who actually do suffer devastating events. So he appended a qualifier - "aesthetically." This is both a smart and funny choice, though, because as we all know, aesthetics are subjective, so the combination becomes potentially true, (he may indeed find these transformers, which we all have already), but also borderline nonsensical.

I love it, and am going to start using this phrase in my daily life.

1 person likes this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2019 at 9:42 am

Posted by DTN Paul, a resident of Downtown North

>> So a neighborhood paid just $43K nearly 50 years ago, and they believe they are entitled to underground facilities paid for and maintained by everyone else in perpetuity,

I'm still not clear why we -all- don't have underground facilities by now. 40 years ago or whenever it was, that was the plan. Without clear cost data, I see no justification for why the Utilities department shouldn't maintain what they have now.

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