After hours of public comment for and against the idea, the Laguna Beach City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to direct staff to begin preparing a ballot measure that would ask residents in November to approve a 1-cent sales tax toward undergrounding utilities on Laguna Canyon Road and other key evacuation routes.
City staff has proposed burying overhead power lines along the state-operated Laguna Canyon Road between Laguna Canyon Frontage Road, near the Art-A-Fair property, and El Toro Road.
Other projects could include work along South Coast Highway, Glenneyre Street and Temple Hills Drive.
The proposal would raise the sales tax rate in Laguna from 7.75% to 8.75%.
The matter is scheduled to return to the council June 22. Placing the measure on the ballot would require approval from four of the five council members.
City staff has priced the undergrounding endeavor as high as $135 million. Funds would come from the sales tax — which would require approval of two-thirds of the voters — as well as from other city funds and money from utility companies.
Advocates said the undergrounding is needed to improve public safety, particularly on Laguna Canyon Road, the city's main inland arterial route. It would eliminate the possibility of power lines falling and causing fires, they said.
Dissenters were critical of the cost as well as increasing the sales tax and said the measure could pit residents against one another.
Councilman Bob Whalen and Councilwoman Toni Iseman noted that the undergrounding question has been years in the making.
"This is not anything that has been sprung on the community," Whalen said. "It's an issue of concern. It should be put forth before the voters."
Iseman said she likes how the sales tax also would be paid partially by tourists.
"This argument can be won on truth," she said. "Hopefully there is no distortion of reality."
City staff estimates the tax would generate $5.6 million annually over 30 years, two-thirds of which would come from tourists.
The city also plans to dedicate $2.5 million annually toward the effort and take about $6 million from a special Southern California Edison fund for it.
Officials said, however, that Edison has declined to contribute additional money, as has the California Department of Transportation.
Hoping those agencies will pay for the undergrounding is "a fallacy," Whalen said. "We're going to have to bring some resources to the table."
Michael Morris, who spoke Tuesday on behalf of the group Stop Taxing Our Property, said much of the argument by project proponents is "fear-based."
"Fear of the unknown, fear of fires ... rather than one that focused on prudent analysis," Morris said.
He questioned the city's assumption that two-thirds of the sales tax would be paid by tourists, saying no basis for that has been provided yet.
He also questioned the cost.
"How often have we ever heard that something came in under budget? Never," Morris said. "Costs always spiral."
Councilman Steve Dicterow said he harbors some skepticism about the project, though he approved of sending the matter to voters.
"I urge everybody to try and keep this as civil and objective as possible," he said.
Members of Underground Laguna Now urged the city to approve the project.
Laguna is subject to floods, wind, landslides and fires, and downed utility lines on key routes could disrupt lifesaving efforts, Karen Klammer said.
"We feel it's very important that our town has a chance to vote on this," she said.
Chris Reed said the utility poles, with their transformers, plastic pipes and other communications gear, are "equipment-laden monstrosities."
"It's what my English mother would call a 'dog's breakfast,'" he said. Removing them from sight, he added, would improve Laguna's aesthetics.
Pedestrian signs approved
In other action Tuesday, the council approved a temporary sign program through the summer aimed at guiding people to places of interest beyond the downtown core.
The program, vetted by the Planning Commission this month, calls for adding eight signs with affixed blades pointing to areas of note. Boosters hope the signs will help drive pedestrian traffic to the HIP District, the stretch of South Coast Highway between Anita Street and Bluebird Canyon Drive.
City staff said it will conduct surveys to gauge whether the signs are effective and well-received and whether they should be permanent.