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Ordinance requires underground utilities for new developments

by Samuel Clanton | September 13, 2023 at 9:04 a.m.

New residential, commercial and industrial developments in the city of Bella Vista will be required to place all utilities underground, including electric lines, if the City Council approves second and third readings of a new ordinance to that effect, scheduled for later this month.

The code amendment reads in part that for any development requiring planning commission approval, "All utility wires, lines, and cables in said developments utilized by electric and/or telecommunications companies shall be placed underground.

"Overhead wires, supporting structures, and associated structures of a temporary nature which provide temporary service are exempt from this requirement. A single power pole near the exterior boundary of a development shall be allowed to provide connections for underground service."

During discussion of the ordinance on first reading, council member Larry Wilms expressed his support for the measure.

"It's something that's obvious and required by most of the larger member communities around us, for a long time, and Bella Vista has finally chosen to move forward with this," he said during the Aug. 28 regular council meeting.

"I think it will improve the reliability of the electrical component of the utilities ... maybe reduce the potential of loss [of power] during a severe storm or whatever is going through the city. So I think it will be a benefit in the long term."

Wilms also stated, "It will add to the cost of development a little, but since we're only dealing with one utility [electric lines], it's probably not going to be too bad." For the most part, other utilities are already underground, he said.

Council member Jerry Snow said he's heard that the cost of placing underground electric lines is a lot more costly to developers. He supports the idea of underground lines, but wonders if potentially driving up costs would negatively affect future development, especially residential.

"I think the aesthetics of underground utilities are great. I think it's a good thing, but I think since we've been a city, there have been only two subdivisions that have been built in Bella Vista," Snow said. "I have been informed or it has been suggested that this basically will shut down any future subdivisions, because the cost of underground utilities is about five times more expensive than overhead [lines]. Whether that's correct or not, I have no idea.

"It looks good and I'd like to see it, but if it shuts down future development, I don't know. It's a question to be determined at a later date, I'm certain."

It was established by the council that existing developments would be exempt from the requirement, including those that are platted but still undeveloped. The code amendment would apply only to new developments.

City Attorney Jason Kelley reiterated comments he made to the council during a previous work session. "It is not going to require existing poles to be taken down and lines to be buried in existing neighborhoods. It does not do that, at all," he said.

Mayor John Flynn called for a motion for first-reading only, stating, "I was inclined to think maybe this wasn't an item that should go to third and final [reading] ... there may be people who may want to comment on it, maybe come to the next meeting."

Before making a motion to that effect, council member Craig Honchell said of the ordinance, "Essentially it removes the ambiguity out of the language of the existing [code]. So, rather than it being a request of staff, it just cements the idea that this is how we do things."

The current code does not require underground utilities for residential or industrial developments, but makes a small suggestion for residential developments with the verbiage: "placement of underground utilities in new residential development is strongly encouraged."

In her report and recommendation to the council, Planning Manager Taylor Robertson said staff finds it difficult to enforce suggestions such as this within code: "Without a blanket statement such as 'shall be,' enforcement significantly lacks, making this difficult to interpret as a requirement rather than an ask. Removing the sentence regarding this act being encouraged and replacing it with 'shall be placed' significantly assists staff and the planning commission from an enforcement perspective."

Her report went on to state, "Recent residential subdivision developments were approved without underground utilities as code allows and large, additional areas of natural amenities have been cleared to provide adequate space for overhead lines. This proposal is made with the intent to provide a requirement for underground utilities for residential and industrial projects with the hope to preserve more trees and provide a more aesthetic, natural appeal to Bella Vista."

The City Council will consider second and possibly third and final readings of the ordinance during its next regular session, scheduled for Monday, Sept. 25 beginning at 6:30 p.m. in District Court, located inside the Bella Vista Public Safety Building on Forest Hills Boulevard.

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