Proposed utility lines

This simulated image was created by Tucson Electric Power to demonstrate where the above ground utility lines will look like along Oracle Road. The lines will be located on the west side of the street as shown on the east side. 

Courtesy of Tucson Electric Power

The Oro Valley council voted 6-1 on Wednesday night to fund $2.1 million in contingency reserve funds to underground utility lines along Oracle and Tangerine roads in a three-project proposal brought forth by Tucson Electric Power several months ago.

TEP, which does not generally run utility lines underground, originally brought the item up to the council because the Town’s zoning code prohibits aboveground lines except under certain conditions.  

TEP spokesman Joe Salkowski said two of the projects – which will connect feeder ties to lines near Rancho Vistoso Loop and between La Canada and La Cholla, south of Tangerine Road – are pressing, as shortages of power in those areas are expected to peak by summer. 

The third project, and certainly the most controversial leading to council’s vote, relates to a road-widening project along Oracle Road, brought forth by the Arizona Department of Transportation. Because the existing underground lines were not installed in an easement, but instead underneath the highway right-of-way, ADOT has refused any financial responsibility. 

In the agreement between TEP and the Town, the Town will be responsible for half the cost of relocating the lines along Oracle, and the differential cost for the underground lines relating to the feeder tie projects. 

The lines in all three projects could have been installed aboveground at no cost to the Town.

The $2.1 million total cost to the Town was too much in the opinion of Brendan Burns, the sole councilmember to dissent on the basis of “corporate citizenship.”

“The ‘T’ in TEP is Tucson,” said Burns. “I personally believe the Catalinas are one of the greatest assets in Tucson. I understand customers not having to pay for underground, but when you’re dealing with Oracle Road, it’s one of three roads that border state national parks. TEP as a good corporate citizen should say, ‘We value this resource and we are going to protect it.’”

Because the lines fall underneath the ADOT right-of-way, TEP could have constructed aboveground lines without Town approval. This has been a major concern to residents, who fear a loss of mountain views along the Town’s scenic corridor. 

“If the power lines go up, in my opinion, you can explain to customers why they’re there, why TEP, which makes hundreds of millions of dollars would want to destroy one of our greatest assets.” continued Burns. “If you lose customers or support, I have no problem with that.”

With a motion and second on the floor for funding approval, Mayor Satish Hiremath took a moment to offer an alternative point of view.

“I will respectfully disagree with councilman Burns,” he said. “Thank you… for giving us the opportunity to not go aboveground on Oracle Road like you could have, and actually giving us and the residents of this Town a choice to preserve our scenic corridor. On behalf of our community, thanks for giving us the choice.”

The new lines on Oracle Road will be placed in an easement as opposed to underneath to prevent a similar dilemma from arising in the future.

The council approval was met under four conditions: 1) TEP will be responsible for all engineering and construction of the facilities; 2) Revenue driven from other utilities using the underground infrastructure will be split between the Town and TEP; 3) The cost to the Town will be capped at 10 percent over the estimated $2.1 million, and; 4) The Town manager and Town attorney are authorized to negotiate the best possible agreement on behalf of the Town with consultation to Town council. 

TEP has not released an exact construction date, though Salkowski said given the anticipated power shortages in Oro Valley by summer, work would begin as soon as possible. 

In spending the $2.1 million, Oro Valley’s contingency reserve fund will remain above the required legal limit.

In other business, The Town voted unanimously to extend its temporary sign relief program for an additional year. Originally brought forth in 2011, the ordinance allowed use of previously prohibited A-frame signs, non-profit signs, and outdoor displays. The temporary relief was set to expire in February of this year.

However, due to uncertainty the recession is passing, and with good results to date, Greater Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Dave Perry and local business owners are requesting a continued allowance when it comes to such advertising methods. 

Since the relief began, 47 business have obtained an A-frame permit, 2 non-profits have received a non-profit sign permit, and 21 business have received and outdoor-display permit. A sampling of 12 businesses was taken to measure results.

“The average increase in reported sales tax for those businesses who received A-frame sign permits was 32 percent,” said Economic Development Manager Amanda Jacobs. “The average increase in sales tax for those businesses that received outdoor display permits was 28 percent. The reason council approved the temporary relief was the downturn in the economy, and in my opinion, it would be premature to let the temporary relief expire.”

Perry agreed that given the economy and buyer habits, it is likely too early to risk prohibiting signs that are greatly increasing business in Oro Valley.

“Here we are as a sales tax dependent community, in this increasing internet-purchasing age, and I have a hard time reconciling those things,” he said. “That’s why I believe it’s very important that government do the things it can to support the people who we know are generating sales tax revenue and economic activity in our community.”

Jenny Ritchie, third-year owner of Trouvaille Salon & Spa, saw a major spike in her business with the use of an A-frame sign, which was responsible for 33 percent of her business since taking advantage of the relief.

With approval, council called on staff to consider leniency on businesses narrowly beyond the realms the rules in place, such as with a sign’s exact distance from the business, but called on a crackdown for repeat and more sever offenders.

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