Palo Alto residents who enjoy the benefits of having all electric equipment underground in their neighborhood and who wish to keep it that way for the foreseeable future will have to pay for that privilege under the city's new rules.
The council voted 6-1, with Councilwoman Lydia Kou dissenting, on Monday to establish a new process for neighborhoods that want to request "special facilities" — those that go beyond what the city typically provides. That's the situation in Green Acres I, where aged electrical equipment is set to be replaced and where residents are insisting that all equipment remain underground.
This demand runs afoul of the city's normal practice, which calls for maintaining electric lines in underground districts below the surface but placing transformers into utility boxes mounted on concrete pads.
Debra Lloyd, assistant director of the engineering division in the Utilities Department, said placing transformers into pad-mounted cabinets is now the industry standard. The design is both less expensive and more reliable than keeping all equipment underground, she said. Equipment in vaults has a shorter life span than in pad-mounted boxes, she said, and requires more maintenance.
"You've got floodwater, pesticide and debris, all of which lead to more difficult maintenance, fault finding and fixing compared to pad-mounted transformers, which are easier to access and don't have the same flooding and debris issues," Lloyd told the council Monday.
Utilities staff had estimated that keeping all the equipment underground would cost $856,283, compared to $380,740 for the standard design. Under the new rule, it would be up to the underground district to pay the balance of $475,543.
The city's new rule gives the neighbors the option of choosing the more expensive equipment, provided that more than 60% of the homeowners support that option and that the neighborhood provides the funding before work commences. Some Green Acres residents bristled at the change and argued Monday that they had already paid for the fully undergrounded district more than four decades ago and should not be charged again.
"We invested heavily in our fully undergrounded system to be installed in the first place," said Nina Bell, a member of the Green Acres I homeowners association.
Over the years, she said, neighbors have remodeled their homes based on the fact that their neighborhood doesn't have wires, poles or pad-mounted cubes.
"And yet there's been no recognition of — or accounting for — the fact that we invested in our fully underground system," Bell said.
Nancy Steinback, also a member of the homeowners' association, called the proposed rule a "complete reversal of policy" and accused the Utilities Department of moving ahead without first explaining to the council the need for the rule change.
Green Acres I isn't the first underground district to face the new design standard. Palo Alto currently has more than 40 underground districts, as well as tentative plans to create 10 more between now and 2050, according to a Utilities Department map. The underground program began in 1965, according to a report from the department, and the first 33 districts have all equipment placed in underground vaults.
The switch to pad-mounted transformers isn't entirely new. The city has already replaced the undergrounded system in two recent replacement districts, both near Arastradro Road. It is also the approach that the city plans to take in all future replacement projects, unless the neighborhood agrees to pay for having everything underground.
Utilities staff had determined that there are eight remaining districts that are primarily residential that would switch from underground to pad-mounted equipment when due for a system rebuild, according to the report.
These districts, along with Green Acres I, comprise about 1,200 properties and 160 transformers, according to staff. By contrast, about 14,000 residential properties are in neighborhoods with poles and overhead electric wires.
Councilwoman Lydia Kou sympathized with the Green Acres I residents and argued that the city shouldn't adopt the new rule without first doing more outreach to other underground utility districts.
"As a homeowner now, with wires all around me, if I had undergrounded facilities that I had invested in ... I'd be mightily angry that you guys are doing this to me and taking what was originally underground and putting a box out there," Kou said. "It's simply aesthetically ugly and on top of that, there's noise."
The rest of the council, however, agreed to move ahead with the staff recommendation, which was endorsed by the Utilities Advisory Commission in April. Vice Mayor Adrian Fine said the payments that the Green Acres I residents made in 1972 did not guarantee the existence of fully undergrounded equipment in perpetuity. He also argued that it's only fair to require the residents to pay the incremental difference between a standard installation and the "special facility."
"If we had a policy that we want all transformers across the city to be undergrounded, there's a good case all ratepayers should pay for that. In this case, there's one district," Fine said.
Filseth noted that without the rule change, all replacement projects in underground districts would automatically feature pad-mounted transformers. The change, he noted, at least gives neighborhoods a chance to request an upgraded design — an option that they otherwise would not have.
Councilman Tom DuBois also supported the change but requested that the council hold a fuller discussion of the city's program for underground utilities. He also added to the motion language calling for staff to explore efforts to camouflage cables and transformers.