After nearly five hours of discussion relating to a zoning amendment of the 110-acre Desert Springs parcel, council had limited time and public input at the Dec. 5 meeting to consider another important issue: the potential authorization of $2.1 million in contingency reserves to fund the underground installation of Tucson Electric Power utility lines.
The item was not brought forth until about 1 a.m., at which point the council chamber was vacant of Oro Valley residents, according to Kevin Burke, assistant to the Town Manager.
Because of this, Mayor Satish Hiremath encouraged delaying authorization or denial of the item, recognizing the importance for citizen input.
“The Town has a lot of exciting projects on the horizon, but paying $2.1 million to underground TEP’s utility lines would certainly delay those plans,” he said. “We need to hear from the community that this is a priority if we are going to authorize such a significant expenditure.”
The power lines could be installed above ground at no cost to the Town, as is TEP policy.
The Oro Valley Zoning Code Revised currently 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.”
However, on infrastructure improvements not associated with any particular development, TEP continues to be unwilling to install underground utility lines without an agreement of payment from the Town.
According to Burke, that payment is to be divided into two payments, if council votes to fund the expenses.
Three infrastructure projects are being proposed by TEP. The first, located on the west side of Oracle Road, between Rancho Vistoso Blvd. and Vistoso Commerce Loop, is intended to tie two circuits together in the Rancho Vistoso area, allowing TEP to accommodate electrical loads in the area without overloading the individual circuit. TEP has proposed placing feeder tie on above ground poles for that area, as it has with the second project, which is located on the south side of Tangerine Road between La Canada and La Cholla.
The third project, located along the west side of Oracle Road, between Tangerine and the Pinal County line, is the result of the Arizona Department of Transportation’s Oracle Road widening project. This project will replace an existing underground line along Oracle Road.
Rancho Vistoso developers originally paid for the differential cost of installing the existing underground line about 20 years ago.
Town Manager Greg Caton said if council does not vote in favor of funding, the lines would have to be located above ground, despite the fact it opposes zoning code.
TEP spokesman Joe Salkowski reiterated that fact, saying that regardless of Town zoning code, TEP has the right to construct aboveground lines since the areas to be improved do not fall in an easement, but on the Arizona Department of Transportation right-of-way.
Salkowski said while customers will likely see an increase in their rates to cover aboveground improvements, it is not fair to ask customers to pay for underground lines.
“As a rule, we install overhead lines unless engineering or safety reasons call for underground installation,” he said. “If customers or a town or city desire lines to be installed underground, we can accommodate that, but the customer who is requesting that needs to cover the additional cost for underground installation. The reason for this policy is that rates reflect the cost incurred to provide service. We are obliged to limit these costs to only expenses that are prudent to provide services, and we do not want to pass along those costs for aesthetic improvements.”
Still, Salkowski said TEP respects the wishes of the Town, which is why the proposal was brought before staff and council before overhead construction was initiated.
The Oro Valley Council is slated to hold a special study session to discuss the proposed project on Jan. 9. No official action is taken during a study session, which will begin at 6 p.m.
The council is slated to vote on in a Jan. 16 meeting, at which point the public is prompted to provide as much feedback as possible.
Residents with questions or comments may contact Chris Cornelison, constituent services coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 229-4711.