Time to Go Underground?

Eichler neighborhood has a lively debate over burying local utility lines out of sight
Fridays on the Homefront
Eichler owners in the San Mateo Highlands recently debated the need for underground utilities in their neighborhood, which has been lined with unsightly poles and cables for decades. Is it time to go underground—and who would pay for
it all?
Fridays on the Homefront
Endless power poles: neighborhood disruption.
Fridays on the Homefront
Upper Lucas Valley looks and feels wonderful power-pole free. Photo: David Toerge

The tragic impact of the recent North Bay wildfires and speculation over the cause of the tragedy seem to have prompted residents of at least one Eichler community to reconsider the looming overhead utility lines that line their own neighborhood.

"Would you be interested in undergrounding our power/telephone lines into the street?" queried Jonathan C., a resident of the San Mateo Highlands, on that Eichler neighborhood's Nextdoor social media page.

Underground utilities have been an integral part of Eichler's Lucas Valley development ever since it was built in the mid-1960s. Today, the residents there love how burying power poles and lines out of sight has helped to preserve the natural beauty of the community.

But is it as easy to do, 50 years later, while digging up the streets in Eichler communities that have been lined with unsightly overhead utilities for decades? And who would pay for it all?

The topic on Nextdoor hit home with Highlands residents and has drawn dozens of responses since Jonathan's initial post in early October. Astrid S. responded first and summarized a concern since echoed by many, posting, "I'd love to see the lines go underground—it is the cost that is the issue."

Highlanders raised other concerns as well, and we ran them past the somewhat embattled folks at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. In the wake of fires destroying 8,000-plus structures in the North Bay, many locals are seeking safer utilities. Neighbor Oliver F. recalled downed lines creating a safety hazard one Fourth of July about 12 years ago in the Highlands, plus other memories.

"I feel that the old power poles, with transformers up on top filled with toxics ready to explode (the one in front of my house did!), and the tangle of lines crossing the streets make our neighborhood appear third-world messy," Oliver posted. "With the property values skyrocketing, it could only help to make our neighborhood look like higher-end, newer neighborhoods nearby that have the utilities underground. I for one am happy to pay my share to leave my heirs a home to inherit in a neater, safer, more modern neighborhood than it is now."

"Like Oliver, we had an incident on our street about ten years ago. Sparks started shooting from a transformer for about 30 minutes before PG&E came," chimed in Chris M. "Every time I look at the rat's nest of wires and junctions and transformers, I think of that day. So, yes, I'd welcome undergrounding."

"Our house lost power and there were burn marks on a tree by our power lines when we were on vacation a few years ago. If it hadn't been during wet season, I hate to think of what would have happened," recalled fellow neighbor Mark P. "I'm 100 percent in support of this. Twenty-thousand dollars on houses which have $1 million valuations seems reasonable for all the benefits."

"In some scenarios, underground infrastructure can result in better reliability and performance, such as when severe weather occurs," said Ari Vanrenen, communications representative for PG&E, who said the company is currently "unable" to do phone interviews. In a brief e-mail interview that certainly didn't promote undergrounding, Vanrenen added, "However, underground lines are not immune to weather damage and are vulnerable to equipment issues, lightning strikes and flooding, or digging damage."