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Editorial: Charleston's new plan for burying power lines could be a state model

Rev up efforts to bury power lines (copy)

Charleston is considering a new policy that could help speed up burying power lines such as these along Coming Street in downtown. Staff/file

Too many South Carolinians have experienced the shock and sorrow of seeing their front lawns butchered by the power company’s aggressive efforts to ensure big branches can’t possibly down a power line during the next big storm. This unsolicited landscaping stirs a special brand of anger in Charleston, which, because of its age, has so many more mature trees and residential power lines above ground.

That’s why Charleston was the first city to devise a program that devotes part of the electrical franchise fee it charged SCE&G, now Dominion, to burying power lines. It was a well-intended effort dating back to the 1990s, but its limitations have become increasingly clear: Only a handful of neighborhoods have had their lines placed underground since the program’s start.

The city can and should do better, and a plan under consideration by City Council could be the key.

Currently, neighborhoods petition the city to have their lines buried, and the city works with two at a time, on a first-come, first-served basis. The petition is only the start of a complicated process that requires two-thirds of a neighborhood’s property owners agreeing to pick up 15% of the cost; owners must sign easements for new electrical boxes that must be placed on their property. Only then is City Council asked to approve the work.

In some cases, such as in The Crescent and Country Club neighborhoods, residents rallied, and their lines are now below ground. But Ansonborough has been trying to get a project for more than a decade, with still no clear idea for when work might start.

The change under consideration would create an objective way to evaluate underground projects — taking into account, for instance, existing trees, the area’s historical character, public visibility and other factors — that might affect only a street at a time instead of an entire neighborhood. It includes commercial as well as residential areas, although it allows neighborhoods already on the list for undergrounding to retain their place in line. And the city would hire a staff person to act as a liaison with Dominion, other affected utilities and property owners. The liaison also would enable the city to tackle underground projects that are partially outside the city.

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Mayor John Tecklenburg formed a citizens group to revise the plan because of tree-trimming controversies; City Council gave the policy initial approval Tuesday and should vote for final approval next month.

Danny Kassis of Dominion Energy, who has worked with cities and towns on underground wiring projects for years, said the city’s updated approach for leveraging franchise money makes sense. It could lead to more dramatic successes, like North Charleston’s Montague Avenue and Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant.

It also could lead to faster, smaller projects that could be advanced sooner, especially when trees are at risk. Last week, Dominion began removing about 130 palmetto trees on the western side of Charleston’s peninsula because they had grown into overhead power lines and there was no money or legal mechanism to get the lines buried quickly.

And unlike the current system, which requires property owners to pay 15% of the work — generally about $1,000 but sometimes much more, since it can cost 10 times as much to bury lines in a dense urban area than in a large-lot subdivision — property owners wouldn’t have to pay anything directly.

Using franchise fees to fully match Dominion’s contribution makes sense because burying power lines not only helps improve an area’s beauty by protecting trees from regular unsightly pruning, but it also helps reduce (but not eliminate) the likelihood of power outages during a storm. That’s why we need more aggressive strategies to bury power lines. And it’s why we support Charleston’s promising new initiative and encourage other cities and towns to explore similar programs.

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