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Getting Your Neighborhood Underground

— Unsightly poles and power lines are a part of our historic architecture that nobody wants to preserve. San Diego has been working since 1970 to move the lines underground. And it’s done that with the help of an urban arborist named Drew Potocki.

Drew Potocki stands next to his '55 Chevy pickup truck while on the job in Talmadge. Drew is the arborist for San Diego's utility undergrounding program, June 10, 2011.
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Above: Drew Potocki stands next to his '55 Chevy pickup truck while on the job in Talmadge. Drew is the arborist for San Diego's utility undergrounding program, June 10, 2011.

Potocki leaned against his 1955 Chevy truck as he spoke with me on a quiet street in Talmadge, where undergrounding is going on. He said half the city's neighborhoods are new enough that they never had overhead power lines. So the undergrounding effort has focused on older neighborhoods. Potocki has helped to supervise power-line undergrounding with an eye toward preserving and enhancing the urban forest.

Trees provide shade. They save water by preventing runoff and Potocki says they calm traffic. San Diego landscape architect Vicki Estrada said studies even show trees improve the grades of kids who live on the street.

But San Diego’s urban forest has been in contact, and sometimes in conflict, with a forest of power poles and transmission wires that have lined the streets of the city since electricity first arrived. In the older neighborhoods, street trees have done a nice job of hiding the power lines. Potocki, however, said many of those trees need to be removed because they threaten the wires. Other trees have just died off.

“So after these trees died out over the past 50 to 60 years – these homes were built mostly in the ‘30s and ‘40s – those trees are gone,” he said. “What’s left? The wires!”

The City of San Diego says about 35 miles of power lines are buried in the city every year. It says the job will finally be done about 25 years from now. SDG&E is responsible for undergrounding power lines on main streets. Undergrounding the lines on neighborhood streets is managed by the city. It’s funded by a surcharge that’s applied to everyone’s power bill.

Potocki said undergrounding will give people in the older parts of town a clear view of San Diego.

“The older neighborhood gets to be enhanced,” he said. “There are less vegetation conflicts and that minimizes cost, not just for homeowners but also the costs for utilities ‘cause they don't have to do the line clearance.”

Putting trees where the power poles used to be falls to a group of non-profit agencies that include the San Diego Urban Corps. Potocki said San Diego has lately planted about 2,000 new trees trees a year. But there’s a long way to go. Potocki said San Diego should have 500,000 street trees, based on its road milage. It only has 230,000.

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