New rule on electric equipment sparks neighborhood opposition

Palo Alto to give residents options of requesting fully undergrounded electric equipment — provided they help pay for the project

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.


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19 people like this
Posted by Residents Get Ripped Off
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 16, 2019 at 9:37 pm

Lydia Kou is the one councilmember we have with principles. Residents paid big bucks for undergrounding utilities, but the city has gone back through the fine print and discovered it can charge those residents even more rather than giving them they were originally promised.

Maybe the ripped-off residents should try again, but this time call themselves "developers." Our Council forks over giant favors worth millions of dollars to developers all the time. One recent example: the outrageous "workforce" housing slated for the empty lot at Page Mill and El Camino. The Council recently rezoned the property to just what the developer wanted, allowing way more high-priced residences than at other sites, less parking than elsewhere, and exempting the project from the normal below market-rate housing requirements. That put millions upon millions of dollars into the developer's pockets, while the rest of us will now need to fork over the cost for buying land for true below market-rate housing that could have gone there. To her credit, Kou voted against that rip-off of residents too.

Let's elect some more councilmembers who are willing to stand up for residents.

11 people like this
Posted by Downfall
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 16, 2019 at 9:49 pm

How naive of the homeowners to think because they paid for something decades ago that the benefit would last in perpetuity. This is childish thinking and just not realistic. How many of the current homeowners were even there to contribute to the original funding of the system. Welcome to the real world!

6 people like this
Posted by Just sayin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2019 at 11:01 pm

I know, we citizens should come forward with an initiative to halt the city from making dangerous and stupid changes to the roadways and save millions that could be used to keep the already undergrounded systems safe and current.

8 people like this
Posted by Just sayin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2019 at 11:05 pm

Non-undergrounded utilities have costs such as tree trimming, sparking fires, power outages due to mylar balloons, etc etc. Will the Greenacres residents be exempt from those and refunded all that they paid into the system for the last 40 years that they had to pay for others aboveground utility costs not factored in here?

This is ridiculous in a City that can spend $4 million to upgrade the drapes and otherwise spiffy up City hall, and gawd knows how much on stupid and dangerous road furniture.

10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2019 at 1:02 am

The transformers are 50 years old and need to be replaced. Putting the new ones underground is expensive. If Green Acres doesn’t pay the extra cost for their replacement units to be put underground, then all the other homes in Palo Alto have to pay that cost for them, through higher electricity rates. @Ripped is just wrong. The city council actually looked out for all residents this time, instead of just a noisy few.

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2019 at 8:10 am

It seems to me that every year there are funds from Utilities transferred to general fund.

Budgeting for maintenance and replacement of equipment should be part of what would be a sensible utilities financial plan.

Utilities are not equitable around Palo Alto. Another neighborhood lost power last weekend due to a balloon stuck in wires. This cannot happen when wires are underground. We regularly get power outages due to birds, squirrels, geese, seagulls, balloons, fallen trees or branches, etc. This cannot happen to underground lines. I know, we are talking about boxes not power lines, but utilities that are out of harm's way do appear to be more reliable.

Palo Alto really needs to get its act together and put wires underground. Powerlines are no longer there for lights in homes. Power outages now cause major problems in homes where people run businesses, work from home, children doing homework, students doing online studying or taking part in real time classes through skype, etc. etc. The costs of an outage to customers are not always taken into account when apologizing for an outage, and these costs may be more than just financial. When a customer loses a business deal, can't submit important information, can't do an online exam, can't skype a dying relative, can't have an online interview, or the many things we depend on having reliable power in our lives, we are not being treated respectfully by our provider.

It is time that Palo Alto brought up the reliability of our power to modern standards. This is no longer the 1950s. We are in the 21st century now and our utilities should reflect this.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2019 at 8:18 am

Additionally to my previous comment, does anyone see the problem with a city that wants to put in EV charging stations in apartment buildings so that every person can drive an electric vehicle, and yet won't insure that its power supply is dependable and reliable.

On top of the list of uses of power, I forgot to mention the necessity of charging our cars.

How can we get more EV cars, buses, shuttles, and invest in infrastructure for that and yet not have enough money to make the power supply reliable? Palo Alto owns its own utilities, but is the left hand any idea of what the right hand is doing?

2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2019 at 10:09 am

This change of policy appears to be sudden, and potentially, shortsighted. We need more data to understand if and why this change of policy was necessary. And, BTW, whatever happened to the plan to underground utilities citywide?

Like this comment
Posted by Pied Piper
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 17, 2019 at 11:15 am

Pied Piper is a registered user.

Palo Alto Utilities is an end run around Prop 13, the goose that lays golden eggs for City Council budget games by transfers to the general fund.

They should adopt a new tagline:
"Our hands. Your pockets."

4 people like this
Posted by Train neighbor
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 17, 2019 at 12:00 pm

Train neighbor is a registered user.

There is NO CHANGE to the policy of putting transformers above ground on a concrete pad that Council approved in 1996.

The policy approved last night allows neighborhoods to opt-in to create a special facility to install transformers in underground vaults as long as the neighborhood pays for the extra costs.

I thank City Council for not shifting more costs onto other neighborhoods.

I look forward to seeing how much it would cost to finish undergrounding the rest of the residential neighborhoods faster than the 100 homes per year they say they are doing now.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2019 at 1:17 pm

Posted by Train neighbor, a resident of Ventura

>> I thank City Council for not shifting more costs onto other neighborhoods.

How much cost are we talking about? If CPAUtil charged the amortized cost per month per household meter, how much would it be per month?

>> I look forward to seeing how much it would cost to finish undergrounding the rest of the residential neighborhoods faster than the 100 homes per year they say they are doing now.

Me, too. It has been 50-ish or 25-ish years depending. If CPAU had done 1000 households per year for the last 25 years, it would be done.

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 17, 2019 at 1:44 pm

>> "You've god floodwater, ...

Huh? Two errors found in two minutes. Who writes this stuff?
Third graders?

They must be as professional as the ones who censor PAO or
the ones who shut down comments when they get too anti-

One error corrected though ... nice work ... did you get overtime
for that?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2019 at 4:26 pm

>> How much cost are we talking about?

For the Green Acres neighborhood, about $500,000 more to put it underground. (The wires and cables are already underground there)

2 people like this
Posted by Train neighbor
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 17, 2019 at 5:02 pm

Train neighbor is a registered user.

The staff report says the extra cost to replace and maintain the underground transformers in Green Acres is about $475,000 to serve 100 homes ($4,750 per home).

The report also says there are 14,000 homes that have YET to be converted from overhead to underground. So the additional cost to put transformers underground for the next 14,000 homes would cost $66.5M. And that doesn't include the neighborhoods that already switched from underground transformers to pad mounted.

I'd suggest we find better ways to use $66.5M!

Source: Web Link

5 people like this
Posted by Just sayin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2019 at 5:03 pm

The City has no problem with residents paying for the costs of big developers' relentless overuse of of the planning department -- the Weekly did an article about how developer fees aren't nearly covering the costs they foist on the City (paid by residents) and nothing changed.

The above poster is right. Money goes from the utilities to the general fund. That money should be used for things like this -- for all neighborhoods.

All of Palo Alto should be undergrounded. And the City shouldn't come to shake residents by the ankles for the money, given the way residents have been treated already. When our children's lungs are already filtering the exhaust of all the cars coming here from overdevelopment of office space, and the congestion from the City's misguided pet projects, it's time a per-person employee business tax was levied such as in SF and MV to allow the City to be run for residents again.

3 people like this
Posted by Just sayin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2019 at 5:23 pm

The north side of town has far more City amenities -- and City Hall -- than the South, even though on a per square foot basis, people in most neighborhoods in the South pay nearly as much or as much in property tax as most northern neighborhoods (plus we may have smaller houses, but we're also closer together, too), and the City has overdeveloped so much it's much harder to just get to other sides of town to use the amenities. Has the City made a move to start making people in the north pay a more representative share for the golf course renovation, Lucie Stern upkeep, City Hall renovations, the airport, the Art Center, Rinconada pool, etc etc etc? Of course not.

Being a citizen of a town is not a pay as you go proposition. Our family was treated so badly our special needs child couldn't stay in the local schools, yet we still pay tens of thousands in property taxes annually that mostly go to support the schools, and pay for other people's kids to get the education. Why aren't the people getting the benefit from the schools, including the teachers with their six-figure salaries, paying for the schools instead?

Because it's a PUBLIC school district. And this is a PUBLIC utility. The utility sends money to the general fund. The City should not be shaking citizens down for things like this. If I can't opt out of paying for public schools just because of how badly some of the district employees treated my child and family, the City shouldn't be able to suddenly make undergrounded utilities not really undergrounded unless citizens pay more.

All utilities in Palo Alto should be undergrounded, and the City should not be singling out neighborhoods to levy high fees on individuals. (For the record, I do NOT live in Greenacres I.)

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