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Los Altos Hills council supports undergrounding utilities project

Undergrounding a test swath of 5,000 feet of utilities in Los Altos Hills could cost the town as much as $5 million, council members learned Thursday at their monthly council meeting.

Councilwoman Courtenay C. Corrigan said that figure leaves her suffering “sticker shock.”

“I take a deep breath like, ‘Whoa! Ho! My gosh!’” she said.

Council members agreed with Corrigan that they’d like more information before spending that kind of money, but they gave Councilman George Tyson, the project committee chairman, the verbal affirmations he sought to continue researching the project. The council will next discuss it at a Jan. 31 goal-setting meeting.

A 2012 townwide survey of residents revealed “insufficient support” for burying overhead electrical and telecom cables, Tyson said, but there’s since been a fundamental shift in perspective due to concern about aesthetics and fire danger. The October Kincade Fire, which burned more than 77,000 acres, is thought to have been caused by a broken PG&E line.

Tyson wants approximately $25,000 for another town survey to discern current opinions. He’s suggested a two-pronged approach to the project involving an “ice breaker” phase in which 5,000 feet of wires between the El Monte fire station and Altamont Road, a high-priority area due to the presence of emergency services, is buried, followed by an “ocean liner” phase in which a townwide undergrounding plan would be developed. The second phase involves defining priority locations, estimating a time schedule and estimating costs.

Funding options include a utility tax, a loan or bond, and the use of 20A funds appropriated by the California Public Utilities Commission for such projects, according to Tyson. It’s possible to purchase other towns’ 20A funds at half their value.

“What I’ve gathered, frankly, from a lot of anecdotal and resident input, including from going to the Environmental Initiatives (meetings) and the kind of emails I get all the time, I believe that there is an appetite … for a way to find out how we can underground a substantial portion or all of this town,” he said.

Energy code amendments

Council members voted 4-1, with Roger Spreen dissenting, to amend the town’s energy code so as to require the electrification of space and water heaters in newly constructed homes, a move meant to reduce carbon emissions.

The amendments require electric heat-pump space heating and heat-pump water heating but permit gas-fueled cooking appliances, clothes dryers, outdoor pools, spas, barbecues, fireplaces and firepits. New buildings plumbed for gas appliances must be pre-wired for electrical ones.

Resident Steve Schmidt lauded the changes as essential to meeting the town’s climate action plan goals.

“I’ve just done at my own house both of these major updates – one is for heat-pump water heating and one is for heat-pump space heating,” Schmidt said. “My wife and I are very happy with the results.”

But several residents previously sent emails to town staff expressing their concerns about the amendments.

“This seems like a solution looking for a problem,” wrote Phil Mahoney in a Nov. 25 email. “When over half the world cooks over open fire pits, I think we can look elsewhere to solve our CO2 problems. LAH Nat Gas use doesn’t move the needle.”

The new ordinance is scheduled for adoption at the Feb. 20 city council meeting, and it will go into effect March 22.

The city council’s Jan. 31 goal-setting meeting is open to the public. For more information, visit the calendar at losaltoshills.ca.gov. An agenda will be posted earlier that week.

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