On July 30, Lodi resident David Bertocchini saw plants he had recently planted on the west side of his home trampled and destroyed, and a new green electrical utility box sticking up out of the ground.
“It looked like a hit-and-run without someone leaving a note,” he told Lodi City Council members at their weekly shirtsleeves meeting early Tuesday morning.
The new utility box, Bertocchini later found out, was part of Lodi Electric Utility’s program to replace its more than 30-year-old underground electrical boxes with more reliable, more accessible and safer above-ground boxes.
The issue left city council members in a quandary over whether to put the box on Bertocchini’s property back underground and limit above-ground boxes in the future, or continue with the electric utilities replacement program in its current form.
The submerged utility boxes, which serve as junctions for underground electric cables, often fill with water during the rainy season and from lawn sprinklers, which has degraded both boxes and cables over the years. This causes reliability problems with the junctions and makes it difficult for utility workers to make repairs during power outages if the boxes are filled with water.
Elizabeth Kirkley, director of Lodi Electric Utility, and Barry Fisher, the construction maintenance supervisor for the utility, told council members that keeping water out of the boxes is often a losing battle, especially when trying to restore power late at night during a storm.
Bertocchini says he was never notified by the city that the utility box was being moved above ground. Kirkley said it is the electric utility’s practice to notify residents that work will be done on their property. She has personally apologized to Bertocchini for the oversight in his case.
When he bought the Lakeshore Drive home as a fixer-upper nine years ago, Bertocchini knew the underground box was there, along with a green above-ground electric transformer and a multi-home mailbox on the east side of his property.
A second green box on his property was too much for Bertocchini, who said Wednesday that his neighbors have called the new box an eyesore.
Worried that the roughly 3-by-3-by-4-feet green utility box will lower the value of his home, Bertocchini wants the city to put the box back underground.
After speaking with Fisher on Aug. 1, Bertocchini said he thought the box would be moved back underground with silicone sealant used along openings to keep out water. He learned later that month that the utility would not put the box back underground.
Fisher said Bertocchini misunderstood their original conversation, and that a sealant wouldn’t work to keep water out of the box.
Bertocchini told city officials Tuesday he felt his due process rights had been violated.
City attorney Stephen Schwabauer said Wednesday that it is neither a due process nor an eminent domain issue.
While he sympathizes with Bertocchini, Schwabauer said the utility boxes are on easements owned by the city that are clearly detailed in homeowners’ deeds.
This left the four city council members at the meeting Tuesday divided as to whether the utility should be converting underground boxes to above-ground boxes on residential lots that have more than one junction box or a transformer on their property, like Bertocchini, or convert all the underground boxes as planned.
Kirkley told the council that 30 underground boxes have been converted to above-ground boxes so far, with 12 of those boxes sitting on parcels that have two boxes. Of the remaining 200 underground boxes the city plans to replace, 50 to 60 of those will be on lots with two boxes.
Mayor Alan Nakanishi and Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce want to offer relief to Bertocchini and find a way going forward to make sure a single property doesn’t have more than one above-ground box.
“What (Bertocchini) said makes sense to me,” Nakanishi said. “If there’s two (boxes), the second one doesn’t go in.”
Mounce said she would like to pass an ordinance to make sure that it is city policy.
Council members Bob Johnson and Larry Hansen said they want to let the utility box replacement program continue as it is.
Johnson said that when he travels down Lakeshore Drive, he doesn’t even notice the various utility boxes in people’s yards. He added that in his 18 years as a real estate appraiser, he has never lowered the value of an appraisal on a home because it has utility boxes out front — especially on a premium lakefront property like Bertocchini’s.
Hansen said he was willing to leave the matter to the expertise of the electric utility.
“At this point I would not vote for an ordinance that limits the number of boxes, because it also limits our ability to ensure our reliability of providing electricity,” Hansen said.
Councilman Phil Katzakian did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.
City Manager Rad Bartlam and Schwabauer told council members that the practice could be changed at a regular city council meeting, without passing an ordinance.
Schwabauer said Wednesday that passing an ordinance — as opposed to just changing the practice — was retroactive with regards to having two utility boxes on one property could require the city to go back and condemn easements designed by developers when subdivisions were built. This would come at ratepayers’ expense, he said.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Bertocchini said he was willing to see what the city council would do to rectify the situation before deciding what his next options are.