Oro Valley residents are saying no to above ground utility lines that could be erected along the town’s scenic corridor on Oracle Road, despite the fact the decision could come with a hefty price tag to the contingency reserve fund.
The project, proposed as the result of a road-widening initiative by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), is one of three recently brought forth by Tucson Electric Power.
The other two projects propose placing feeder ties on above ground poles in the areas of Rancho Vistoso Blvd. and Vistoso Commerce Loop, and between La Cañada Drive and La Cholla, south of Tangerine Road. These projects are designed to address the town’s past issues with electrical adequacy by increasing circuit capacities.
The tension of which party will pay for the projects – and how much – has derived from a conflict between the town’s existing zoning code and TEP’s typical practices.
Oro Valley’s current Zoning Code prohibits above ground utility lines, stating, “It is unlawful to erect, possess or maintain any utility poles or wires above the surface of the ground except after obtaining a Conditional Use Permit.”
Alternatively, TEP spokesman Joe Salkowski said unless certain circumstances apply, TEP does not generally install underground utility lines.
“Typically, TEP’s policy is to install most of our facilities overhead,” he said. “We do that for a number of reasons – among them is cost. The way our rates work is that all the costs we incur in serving our customers are bundled into our rates, but we have an obligation to only include those costs which are prudent and justified by engineering demands or safety, which sometimes dictate an underground installation in certain situations.”
In the case of the Oracle Road-widening project, utility lines are currently installed underground, paid for about 20 years ago by Rancho Vistoso developers.
While Town Manager Greg Caton and engineers determined that only about 50 percent of the current lines actually need relocating with the road widening, Salkowski argued the costs associated with bending the lines qualify it as an entirely new project.
Salkowski added that while TEP has the authority to relocate the current Oracle Road lines aboveground since the highway falls on the Arizona Department of Transportation’s right-of-way, the company respects the desires of the town and its zoning code, thus bringing the item forward to reach a mutual agreement.
TEP is asking the town to pay the differential cost between installing the lines above ground (provided at no cost) and underground. Oro Valley’s chunk of that total bill, for all three projects, is approximately $2.1 million. That amount would likely come out of the contingency reserve fund, which has a current balance of about $11 million.
“While it is still a significant amount of money, we have built up our funds over the years as part of the recovery process from the recession,” said Caton.
Councilman Bill Garner has been one of the most outspoken against above ground poles.
“I’m not in favor of above ground power lines, especially along Oracle Road,” he said in a column printed in with The Explorer. “They’ll interfere with our viewshed and take away from our status as a scenic corridor along the Catalinas. It’s important that the public be fully vetted on this process and that TEP provides visuals and true cost estimates for this project.”
Council heard input from a number of residents, most of who agree with Garner’s stance, but they disagreed on how to go about paying the $2.1 million.
Resident John Hickey said according to state law, because ADOT is requesting the road widening, the responsibility of payment for that project should fall on them.
Not so, according to ADOT representative Robin Raine.
“Unfortunately, with the Oracle project, TEP is not in prior rights, which means that according to rules and laws, we are not allowed to pay, but TEP must pay for the relocation because they are in a permitted condition on our right-of-way,” she said.
Don Barnett called for new developers and incoming residents to help pick up the costs of the TEP projects.
Bill Adler said the scenic corridor deserves protection, and whether or not to underground is not the issue.
“I think we are obligated to do it, if not legally, then morally,” he said. “The question is, are we interested in creating a different revenue stream to pay for it rather than taking it out of the contingency fund. I don’t think this is a contingency, I don’t think it meets the criteria.”
Caton said a franchise agreement is also in the early stages of consideration in order to acquire necessary funding.
Mayor Satish Hiremath and Councilman Joe Hornat suggested a cap be placed on the total project amount to avoid unexpected expenditures.
The item will go before council for a vote on Jan. 16.