City Council OKs new underground utility district on Cliff Drive from Salida Del Sol to San Rafael Avenue
The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday approved the city’s plan to use the last of its Rule 20A funds for underground utilities on Cliff Drive from Salida Del Sol to San Rafael Avenue.
Earlier this year, the California Public Utilities Commission voted to discontinue Rule 20A work credits by the end of 2022. Rule 20A is a statewide funding mechanism for municipalities to bury power lines.
Santa Barbara has used the program’s funds to convert utilities on Cliff Drive from Mesa Lane to Lighthouse Road from overhead power poles to underground lines. The $5.2 million project was completed in June 2011.
The city has an additional $2.5 million in Rule 20A funds it expects in 2022, but Southern California Edison said Santa Barbara must choose a project by the end of 2021 to remain “active” and avoid losing its funds.
City staff chose the new project’s territory, and the council moved the plan forward — aware of SCE’s tight deadline.
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon, whose district covers the high-fire-risk foothills, asked why the city hadn’t considered burying utilities in her district when drafting a plan 10 years ago. (Undergrounding utilities helps mitigate the risk of wildfire.)
“It’s a different world now than 10 years ago in terms of fire hazards,” Councilmember Sneddon said during Tuesday’s meeting.
The CPUC plans to meet in June of 2022 to issue a Phase Two decision regarding the future of Rule 20A, including setting criteria for wildfire mitigation. Rule 20A has primarily been used for aesthetic purposes, the CPUC’s June 2021 decision said.
Adam Hendel, a principal engineer with the city of Santa Barbara, wrote a letter on behalf of the city in 2020 to advocate for an extension of Rule 20A along with the League of California Cities.
“It is appropriate to add wildland fire mitigation to the Rule 20A project selection criteria because it adds to the City’s discretion to decide for what purpose to use our Rule 20A credits. However, we encourage the State and utilities to identify additional programs and funding to address wildland fire mitigation,” he wrote in the letter.
Mr. Hendel presented the city’s plan before the council Tuesday. Council members suggested the city write another letter.
“Certainly every neighborhood deserves to have undergrounded utilities, our working class neighborhoods as well,” Mayor Cathy Murillo said. “So if we write a letter, I hope it’s broad and talks about the aesthetics all over the city.”
CPUC plans to address disadvantaged communities in Phase Two of its decision.
“I find it a little disconcerting that portions of our community that have more privilege are being highlighted to have this happen in their neighborhoods,” Mayor Pro Tem Oscar Gutierrez said. “I would also want to encourage city staff to have this done in the other, less fortunate districts.”
The city council approved the plan unanimously. Despite convictions to serve other areas, pressure to present a project by the year’s end loomed.
Other Rule 20 programs allow utility poles to be undergrounded at a cost to property owners, per their request.
The next city council meeting on the calendar is Jan. 11, when Mayor Murillo will leave her office to Mayor-elect Randy Rowse.