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Laguna council pushes initiative to place utility lines underground to July 17 so mayor can vote

The Laguna Beach City Council will meet in special session next week to decide the fate of a proposed ballot measure that would raise sales taxes in order to place power lines underground along Laguna Canyon Road and improve other evacuation routes.

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Officials had planned to address the matter Tuesday but rescheduled for 6 p.m. July 17 so Mayor Kelly Boyd, who fell ill, could attend and vote with the rest of the council.

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City officials have proposed two options for the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

The first is a 1-cent sales tax that would raise $5.6 million a year in restricted funds, exclusively for burying utility lines and reducing fire risks along key evacuation roads. That measure would require a two-thirds majority to pass.

The second is also a 1-cent sales tax, raising the same amount annually, but the unrestricted funds could be used for any purpose. That tax would require a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds vote, to pass.

City officials offered the second option at the request of residents "in the event that technology advancements make undergrounding obsolete or that undergrounding of any of the proposed evacuation routes becomes infeasible."

Either proposal would raise the sales tax rate in Laguna from 7.75% to 8.75%. If approved, construction could start in four to five years.

The entire undergrounding and safety endeavor could cost as much as $135 million. City officials say it would make the city more secure by eliminating the chance of downed power lines sparking fires.

The project would involve burying the Laguna Canyon Road utility poles between Laguna Canyon Frontage Road, near the Art-A-Fair property, and El Toro Road. Other projects would take place on South Coast Highway, Glenneyre Street and Temple Hills Drive.

In addition to the anticipated sales-tax revenue, Laguna City Hall plans to dedicate $2.5 million toward the effort and take about $6 million from a special Southern California Edison fund.

Officials have said that Edison has declined to contribute additional money, as has the California Department of Transportation.

The city's undergrounding effort supplements another along Laguna Canyon Road being led by Caltrans and paid for by the state and county. That project would start near El Toro Road and go north to the 73 toll road, undergrounding 19 utility poles. The effort could start in 2021 and end by mid-2023.

Both the City Hall and Caltrans proposals have come under criticism from environmental groups for their potential effects on the canyon. Others, however, have called them essential, especially considering the frequency that Laguna Canyon Road — a main arterial thoroughfare — closes because of downed power lines.

Bradley Zint is a contributor to Times Community News.

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