State's role over Powerlink debated - Changing park plan could delay project
Union Tribune (2008-03-27) JHarry Jones
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By JHarry Jones
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
March 27, 2008
A lingering question in the Sunrise Powerlink controversy is what influence and legal powers, if any, the state Department of Parks and Recreation might have if a 500-kilovolt transmission line is ordered to be built through 22 miles of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
San Diego Gas & Electric Co. is concerned enough that it has revised its preferred route to stay within a 100-foot easement through the park where a smaller line runs. By doing so, the parks department will have no legal way to protest the project, the utility says.
However, the lead attorney for the parks department said that's not how he sees it. General counsel Bradly Torgan said Friday that even if the line were built within the easement, a general-plan amendment for the park would have to be made. That process could take up to a year, thereby delaying construction and increasing the cost of the line, which SDG&E says is needed right away.
“We disagree,” said Michael Niggli, chief operating officer for the utility. “We've done a lot of research on this issue with outside counsel.”
For the past two years, SDG&E's preferred route has had the line closely following the easement but at times veering from the path to make it straighter and to avoid having to cross over state Route 78 twice. By veering from the easement, the towers that support the transmission line could be kept smaller, perhaps 130 feet tall, and less numerous.
But never in state history has a wilderness area been “de-designated.” Niggli and Torgan agree that de-designating wilderness would require the time-consuming process of a general-plan amendment.
Niggli is confident that by staying within the easement, construction could begin shortly after the project is approved.
Torgan disagreed, saying: “What they assert is that the enhanced northern route would not require an amendment to the general plan for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. We have taken the position that any major transmission line through the heart of the park would require amending the general plan.”
The general plan for the park, finalized three years ago, provides a broad framework that guides state parks staff members in managing and operating Anza-Borrego. Such amendments could take years, but because a comprehensive environmental report for the Sunrise Powerlink has been done, Torgan estimates the amendment would take eight months to one year.
The existing line was built nearly 80 years ago and crossed the desert before it became a state park. SDG&E, in its filing, said the general plan for the park “expressly allows for the expansion of the existing transmission line within the existing corridor.”
Under SDG&E's proposal, the Sunrise Powerlink would stretch from Imperial County across the park and a host of North County communities. The utility says that if the line is approved, private companies proposing huge solar-energy fields and geothermal fields in the Imperial Valley will be able to secure funding. The Sunrise Powerlink would then be able to transport that renewable energy to San Diego.
The state Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to decide this year if the project is needed, and if it is, where it should be built. The commission is considering several possible routes, including one that would avoid the park by running through East County much closer to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Niggli said he hopes that should the PUC approve the northern route, the parks department would allow the project, thereby avoiding a conflict between two state entities.
The director of state parks has been on record opposing the project, and opponents say that regardless of whether the line stays within the easement, it would constitute a horrible blight on the austere beauty of the land. If the line were to stay within the easement, it would require taller towers, as high as 160 feet, and more of them.
- Proposed Sunrise Powerlink through Anza-Borrego State Park: