Column: Laguna Beach will need to pay for fire protection or get bit


Like a rattlesnake in the shade, there is a coil of black wires in Laguna Canyon, hanging from a pole without a care in the world.

It’s been there for several weeks, as if in hibernation, territorial yet nonchalant.

It exemplifies the rough-and-tumble canyon, where local government fears to tread — and residents like it that way.


Unfortunately, everyone else has to live with the consequences.

Snarling traffic.

Pole-finding accidents.

Fire in a box.

Despite the long-suffering history, perhaps Laguna Beach is finally ready to do something: Underground the power lines once and for all.

Led by Councilman Bob Whalen, Laguna voters may decide next year whether to bury the deadly snakes, as it were.

In a passionate speech at the Oct. 24 council meeting, Whalen spelled out the realities facing Laguna.

“In the last 10 years we have had five fires sparked by utility lines, and on Laguna Canyon Road alone, 58 vehicles crashing into poles, often closing the road for extended periods,” he said. “So far we have avoided a catastrophic fire but how long will our luck hold?”

His speech came only a couple weeks after the Northern California fires started, but he also mentioned Laguna’s own inferno in 1993.

And he could not help but take a swipe at the local utility companies, which balked at helping the city, despite assurances that they would step up.

“The unwillingness of the utility companies to partner with us, their aggressive attack on our under-grounding ordinance and opposition to our efforts at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) leave us with only one alternative — to shoulder the burden ourselves and develop a locally funded plan to underground the entire city,” he said.

Under Whalen’s plan, which will be fleshed out in a subcommittee, along with help from Councilman Rob Zur Schmiede, Laguna will have to pay a substantial amount, but it depends on your perspective, he said.

“This plan will be expensive in terms of absolute dollars, probably $150 million to $200 million, but in a relative sense I submit that this is actually a modest investment, given what is at stake,” Whalen said. “Of course you can never put a price on human life, so if these improvements ultimately save the life (of) one of our family members or neighbors, I say it is worth it.”

While the details are being worked out, it’s hard to imagine why Laguna voters would not approve this project.

It should have been done years ago — as in 40 or 50 years ago. Frankly, in a catastrophe, Laguna Beach is a triangle of death. Literally, with only three exits, there’s no room for emergency vehicles, let alone an exodus.

If nothing is done, nothing probably will ever get done. The utility companies have no real incentive.

For example, according to the utilities commission, preventing fires is not a requirement for under-grounding. Furthermore, there’s little financial incentive because the public wants their rates kept as low as possible.

“PG&E undergrounds approximately 30 miles of overhead electric facilities each year at ratepayer expense, and the waiting list is reportedly 40 years,” the CPUC wrote in a 2014 special report on utility poles in the state.

While in Laguna it’s more about Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric, the city does not have 40 years to wait.

So if the city pulls together a straight-forward payment plan, it seems like the opportunity is now. But the worst thing officials can do is overcomplicate it.

Keep it simple: power lines equals fires equals death.

Don’t try to get fancy with significant road widening, parking projects or, God forbid, a village entrance.

Do one thing right, for once.

Who knows, perhaps a benefactor will come along and make it even easier.

Wouldn’t it be great, for example, if someone like Google decided to change the game with fiber or some other technology. Overnight, Verizon and Cox would lose Laguna, thankfully.

There’s no reason Laguna should suffer for the one-size-fits-all public utility agencies.

And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening.

If you don’t believe me, drive out to 1975 Laguna Canyon Road and look across at the big black snake coiled in the canyon because no one is willing to challenge it.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at