Utility conversion from ‘poles to holes’ not popular with everyone

Undergrounding lines: cosmetic vs. critical

A petition signed by 75% of the property owners in Ortega Point and some blocks south of the Point will assess 100% of 122 parcels more than $20,000 each to convert overhead electric, telephone and cable television lines to underground utilities.

            For some property owners, the plan to move utility lines from the traditional pole to a hole in the ground is welcomed for cosmetic reasons, that is, to enhance the view, while others want it for safety reasons, citing downed power lines as dangerous. “Undergrounding” to prevent power lines from falling and uprooting trees during a hurricane has become a popular request within many communities.

            However, others feel undergrounding utilities is costly to undertake as well as costly to repair. “When the power goes out, there are two obstacles that [utility] faces before they can fix the line,” stated Ted Kury, the director of energy studies at the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center, in an article published shortly after Hurricane Irma swept through Florida. “One, identification of the fault, and then two, access to the line.”

            Gina Kyle, JEA media manager, addressed the concern as well, stating “Although there are benefits of placing utilities underground, such as less susceptible to power outages caused by wind, falling trees or animals that might impact electric lines and reliability, there are possible downsides, such as underground utilities are more susceptible to flooding and may take longer to repair during an outage as the problems are not readily visible.”

            While access to underground systems can be hindered by floodwaters that often follow hurricane-force winds, after Irma there were more than 2,200 overhead line outages in Jacksonville but only 12 for underground lines. But as Kury also noted, neither overhead nor underground systems can protect power in every situation.

In neighborhoods’ hands

            JEA began undergrounding new residential power lines nearly five decades ago, when city-county government consolidation mandated it for new development. When it comes to replacing existing overhead power lines, Jacksonville has around 3,000 miles of them. In 2017 Scenic Jacksonville proposed a plan to underground about 3% of the lines each year for the next 30 years, but currently the decision to convert – and to pay for it – is up to the desire of neighborhoods. The proposed Ortega Point North Utility Conversion project, which includes properties south of Grand Avenue, was initiated by property owners within the Ortega Point neighborhood.

            JEA’s overhead to underground conversion program focuses on undergrounding overhead electric, telephone, cable television, communication or other overhead distribution line facilities located within the public rights of way in a defined neighborhood boundary. The program also provides a means for neighborhoods to finance the conversion of overhead utility lines to underground systems through a special assessment process, enacted by City Council in 2007.

            Earlier this year, JEA staff met with residents of the Ortega Point community to discuss a proposed project to convert the existing overhead utility service underground; neighborhood block captains were assigned to relay information, identify interested property owners and obtain signatures necessary to proceed with the program.

            According to information supplied on the petition, about 60% of the identified parcels lie north of Grand Avenue in the area known as Ortega Point. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and School, which has eight parcels, has also agreed to participate in the project. Additionally, JEA has a lift station within the project footprint and will contribute a pro-rata share for its facilities outside the special assessment.

            The $1,531,708 cost will initially be funded by the Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA), then reimbursed to JEA by non-ad valorem assessments over a period of 20 years at $1,075.22 per year. Additionally, property owners have the option of financing the additional cost of connecting the undergrounded utilities from the right of way to their property’s structure.

            “Generally, the telephone and cable companies convert all the way to the house or structure as part of the project,” said Kyle. “For JEA electric utilities, the property owner has the option to place their home’s private overhead utility lines underground and can choose to finance this separate amount through the special assessment. The individual property owner can hire a private electrician (costs vary) to install an underground conduit from the home electric meter to a JEA transformer at the street. Then, at no charge to the customer, JEA will pull the underground cable in the electrician-installed conduit, make connections at the transformer (or hand-hole) and customer’s meter to energize the service.”

            Kyles said property owners may elect to keep their overhead services from the house to the street connected from a riser pole near the right of way.

            After meeting the goal of getting signatures from 75% of the property owners, the City Council’s Research Division prepared a legislative summary and assigned 2019-376 as the bill number. It was introduced to City Council May 28; a public hearing was held June 25, at which time the Council approved the ordinance to establish the Neighborhood Assessment Program (NAP).

            The project would be scheduled to commence in 2019 and take about 18 months to complete, according to JEA.

By Kate A. Hallock, Resident Community News

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