Guest Column 

Bob Whalen, Laguna Beach City Councilmember

Undergrounding of utilities is a key safety issue

For more than two years now, my top priority has been to develop a plan to underground utilities citywide.  Power lines, transformers and poles looming overhead are the single biggest threat to public safety in our city. Every day they pose an imminent risk of starting a devastating fire that could take lives and destroy homes. 

Last Tuesday night the City Council, on a unanimous vote, took a big step forward to developing a plan for undergrounding utilities citywide. And we did so with good reason and a strong sense of urgency.  

There is a long history of fires in California caused by downed power lines and equipment—San Diego County, Malibu, Calabasas, Butte County, among others. While the official cause has not been announced, there have been numerous reports in the media that utility lines and equipment were a big factor in the Wine Country fires, now the single worst fire event in California history claiming 42 lives, burning more than 246,000 acres and destroying at least 8400 structures.   

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Dave Day

Laguna was lucky that these downed power lines did not spark a fire recently

But we don’t have to look around the state to understand the risk of utility caused fires. Since 2007 we have had at least four fires in the city ignited by utility poles and equipment. And in the last ten years on Laguna Canyon Road alone 58 vehicles have crashed into poles, often closing the road—one of only three ways in and out of the city—for extended periods. So far we have avoided a catastrophic fire due to great work by our Fire Department and other fire agencies and favorable weather conditions, but how long will our luck hold?   

Over 90 percent of our city is deemed a very high fire hazard area

Over 90 percent of our City is in the CalFire very high fire hazard severity zone. We are surrounded by 16,000 acres of open space.  We live with the memory of the 1993 firestorm that destroyed 440 homes in Laguna and burned 14,000 acres of surrounding open space. We have limited evacuation routes to escape a fire.  

As difficult as it may be to think about the consequences of another major fire in Laguna, imagine with me for a moment how utility poles and lines could create devastation in our community. The Santa Ana winds are blowing and lines go down sparking fires in one or more neighborhoods. 

Or a major earthquake hits and downed power lines spark fires, or ruptured gas lines spark fires, which then spread across the hills and transformers begin to explode as they did in 1993. Residents are trapped in their homes or trapped in their vehicles as they try to escape the firestorm.  

Imagine evacuation routes blocked by downed power lines

But [residents] can’t evacuate because downed poles and wires on Bluebird Canyon Road block the escape from Bluebird Canyon neighborhoods; downed poles and wires obstruct the escape route on Park Ave from Thurston Middle School and Alta Laguna; Top of the World and Temple Hills neighbors and students at TOW Elementary School are trapped by downed poles and wires on Thalia; Woods Cove and Diamond Crestview residents are stuck behind downed poles on Glenneyre and South PCH; North Laguna residents are trapped by downed poles on Monterey Street; and downed poles and wires block Laguna Canyon Road trapping Laguna Canyon residents and preventing others from using the inland escape route.  

…and first responders unable to respond

And while residents are unable to evacuate, the Fire Department, Paramedics, Police Department and other public safety personnel are unable to get access to the fire zone due to downed poles and wires.  The risk of one of these tragic scenarios playing out is all too real.

So what is to be done? The natural reaction is to ask the utility companies to help us underground. That was my first instinct as well following the July 3, 2015 fire in the Canyon which was sparked by power lines downed by a falling tree. Late on the night of July 3, just hours after the fire, I wrote a letter to the President of Southern California Edison asking him to meet and begin a cooperative effort to underground utilities throughout the City. We met and had similar meetings with SDG&E. Neither utility was willing to think outside the box to find creative solutions to fund the cost of undergrounding the City.  

Unwillingness of utility companies to help leaves only one alternative

The unwillingness of the utility companies to partner with us, their aggressive attack on our undergrounding ordinance and opposition to our efforts at the California Public Utilities Commission and in the California Legislature to promote undergrounding leave us with only one alternative—to shoulder the burden ourselves and develop a locally funded plan to underground the entire City.

This is a watershed moment for our City and we need to be bold in our proposals to address the number one threat to our public safety.  In my view, and I am joined in this by Councilmember Zur Schmiede who has been working diligently with me on the Council’s Undergrounding Subcommittee, we must present the voters in 2018 with ballot measures to underground the entire city.  An important component of this plan will be to commit City dollars on an annual basis to significantly reduce the cost for residents.  By contributing City dollars, I am confident that we can develop a plan that will reduce costs to residents by 25 to 35 percent from what undergrounding has cost in recent neighborhood assessment districts.

Ballot measures will allow a vote on a citywide financing plan

My goal is to place two ballot measures on the November 2018 ballot so voters will have a chance to vote on a citywide financing plan. One ballot measure, to be voted on by all voters in the City, would be to approve financing to underground Laguna Canyon Road and the other evacuation routes identified in last week’s agenda. bill. These are safety improvements that benefit all of us citywide. 

 In the event of a major fire or other disaster requiring evacuation, we all need these routes to get out of town as quickly as possible and to ensure that emergency personnel have access to the fire zone. The second ballot measure would apply only to the areas in the city that are not yet undergrounded. Residents in these areas will be asked to approve and pay for the cost of undergrounding their own neighborhoods. This approach makes sense in that it avoids having neighborhoods that have already paid to underground from paying a second time, which would not be fair. 

This plan will mean raising taxes, but I am optimistic that voters will see the wisdom of the plan and realize that it is an essential step to substantially reducing the risk of another disastrous fire in Laguna and ensuring clear evacuation routes for residents and ingress for emergency personnel in the event of an earthquake, fire or other disaster.

The time to take action is now

We can either sit by and do nothing, hoping that our luck will hold and disaster will not strike, or we can take action to protect our community.  The City Council has opted for action and it is my hope that the community will follow with its strong support to approve the plan.

In the one week since the Council action, I have been greatly encouraged at the overwhelmingly positive response that I have received to the Council’s action to move forward with a citywide plan. To me it is classic Laguna—we know when and how to rise to the occasion and do what is right for our City. It makes me proud to live here and to represent all of you.  

If you would like to be informed on this topic and help to implement a plan, please e-mail me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.   and I will add your name to the growing list of supporters.  

I look forward to your thoughts and input on this vital issue.

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