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Hansen: No citywide will to bury power lines

When historians look at old photos of towns, they look for telltale clues to guess the era: horses or cars, gas lights or electric, corsets or mini-skirts.

In Laguna Beach, however, future historians may have trouble because of one glaring anomaly — overhead power lines.

Laguna Niguel doesn’t have overhead power lines. Neither does Laguna Hills, Laguna Woods or even Laguna Seca.

Almost no modern city has overhead power lines anymore, except maybe the bad parts of Bakersfield.


But the Riviera of Southern California is littered with them. Why?

Money. No one wants to pay to put them underground.

Some neighborhoods have formed special assessment districts to fund the effort. But there has not been a citywide initiative.

“There have been some people who have suggested that, but there has been no city policy decision to do that,” said Steve May, director of public works and city engineer.


Besides helping manage the 18 specific neighborhoods that are taxing themselves, the city has been focused only on using the money it gets from the utility company, Southern California Edison (SCE), to methodically work through its under grounding priorities.

Under a funding rule by the California Public Utilities Commission, Laguna gets about $100,000 per year to put toward under grounding.

Next on the list is the Big Bend area of Laguna Canyon Road, which will take at least four or five more years, May said.

The goal is to do the entire stretch of Laguna Canyon, but it will take upward of 20 years or more under the current funding mechanism.

The city’s primary motive to do the canyon is safety, reducing the number of poles, but also helping to keep the main thoroughfare open in case of disaster.

Ironically, SCE just replaced the power lines and 85 poles in the canyon, adding sturdier steel poles, shiny new boxes and more lines than ever.

Officially, Edison upgraded the infrastructure to help bolster reliability. Unofficially, it upgraded the power line blight.

It’s no secret that the lines have become black, tangled scars. They knot up like roadside heart disease.


If viewed from overhead, humans would look trapped in some giant electric spider web, flitting around in our cars, trying to escape the maze.

Red tail hawks often look down from atop the 95-foot poles and smile at our misfortune. If we were smaller, they would no doubt swoop down and pluck us out of our misery.

It’s not our fault that in this age of wireless, we expect everything to be invisible. This visual pollution has become so pervasive and commonplace in Laguna that we don’t even see it most of the time.

It’s not until we use our iPhones to snap a photo that we are shocked to see black lines streaked across the skyline, wondering from where they came.

The poles and lines are not all about power, per se. They can also carry our phone landlines, TV signals and assorted technology — including wireless microcells.

Those neighborhoods that finally got fed up enough to do something had to pay the price. The average for individual homeowners ranges from $10,000 to $50,000 or more, based on a sliding scale of pain.

In other words, the worse the impact, the more you pay.

“Some property owners benefit many times over what others do within a district,” May said. “One property owner might not have a pole really close to their property, and they might not have nothing in their view. And other property owners might have a mess right in front of their main view to the ocean, and they would end up paying many times more than what the other property owner would pay.”


We hate noise pollution so we ban leaf blowers.

We hate ocean pollution so we ban plastic grocery bags.

I guess that means we love visual pollution, driving hazards and brush fires because we are a long way off from banning overhead power lines.

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