Burned Up: Lakeside Planners, Fire Officials and Residents Vent Anger Over State's Approval of Powerlink with no Notice to their Community
East County Magazine (2009-02-18) Miriam Raftery
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More Info: Sunrise Powerlink
By Miriam Raftery
February 18, 2009 (Lakeside) —
|Before and After images of El Monte Valley |
Lakeside planners, fire officials and residents expressed shock and outrage that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved construction of Sunrise Powerlink through the El Monte Valley, a designated scenic area, without ever notifying officials or the public in Lakeside.
Sempra Energy/SDG&E added Lakeside to its proposed Southern Route back in March 2007, but local officials said they never had a chance to provide input on an environmental impact report. Officials warned that adding high-voltage power lines and 20-story towers would not only impede pristine views of El Capitan Mountain—but also prevent firefighting planes from scooping water from a reservoir to douse wildfires, putting San Diego at risk of another catastrophic fire.
Nearly 200 people attended a standing-room-only session of the Lakeside Planning Group last night. In this community where 15 people died from the Cedar fire, survivors testified of their losses and fears, some unable to hold back tears. The clash between Lakeside citizens and Sempra Energy/SDG&E officials was epitomized in this terse exchange:
“So you decided to push this through Lakeside without telling us, and this is now a done deal in your view?” planner Robin Clegg asked. “Our opinion on whether we want this in our community or not is completely irrelevant?”
|Standing-room-only crowd of Lakeside residents expressed unanimous disapproval of proposed Powerlink route through El Monte Valley. |
SDG&E’s Alan Colton, project engineer, responded, “Pretty much.” The crowd jeered in protest—and civility went downhill from there.
Clegg expressed “disgust” over “giant monster towers.” Planner Tom Medritz likened the plan to “putting power lines in Yosemite Valley.” Anton Botter, another planner, observed, “The County let us down. I think they are conspiring with SDG&E.”
A County spokesperson informed East County Magazine “on background” that with power line projects, the CPUC, not the County, bears responsibility to notify local officials and residents. The CPUC outsourced the EIR report to a private company, Aspen. THE CPUC did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for an explanation as to why Lakeside received no notification. Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who did not attend the meeting, has been a vocal opponent of Sunrise Powerlink and provided comments critical of the project to the CPUC based on fire concerns and other issues. She was not available for comment prior to press deadline for this story.
Powerlink was approved 4-1 by the CPUC in December 2008. The Bureau of Land Management, which owns portions of proposed route including areas in El Monte Valley, granted approval in January 2009 during the waning hours of the Bush administration.
Planning Group chairman Rick Smith admonished SDG&E officials. “I take this as a personal slap in the face that nobody bothered to notify Lakeside when this came before the PUC.” He suggested that litigation against the CPUC, County, and SDG&E/Sempra Energy might be in order. “El Monte Valley is the last pristine valley we have left,” he said. “El Capitan isn’t just ours. It’s everyone’s.” He urged SDG&E to consider easements through developed areas of Lakeside instead and to “get out of El Monte Valley,” drawing applause from the crowd.
Planners voted unanimously to oppose the project and to send a letter outlining their objections to Governor Schwarzenegger and other officials. But the planning group has only advisory vote capability, leaving many here frustrated at what all but SDG&E officials viewed as a hijacking of the public’s right to due process.
The company presented a fact sheet stating that the $1.8 billion Powerlink project would import enough energy to power about 650,000 homes and would improve reliability of the region’s transmission system. The fact sheet also stated that the line would have the ability to deliver up to 1,000 megawatts of “clean, green energy.”
|SDG&E reps (left) field questions on Powerlink |
California requires public utilities to provide at least 20% of power from renewable sources by next year, but the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) did not require that any of Powerlink’s energy be from renewable sources when the CPUC approved the project in December 2009. In fact, when one commissioner proposed such a requirement, Sempra Energy balked and reportedly said it would pull out of the project if such a requirement was mandated. In Lakeside, residents and planners called for rooftop solar initiatives instead. SDG&E is looking into partnerships with shopping mall owner Westfield and others to develop rooftop solar, a spokesperson present revealed, but added that rooftop solar would not be sufficient to meet regional energy demands.
Testimony by SDG&E representatives revealed that three local Indian sovereign nations turned down requests for Powerlink to cross tribal lands.
Don Parent, public affairs manager for SDG&E, spoke with East County Magazine
after the meeting. “We thought the Northern Route through Anza Borrego would have been much better,” he said. “There was only one property owner there the state, and look what you have here. We tried for four years to get that approved.”
Many residents spoke against the project. None testified in favor. Some asked why undergrounding power lines had been proposed for Alpine, but not El Monte Valley. SDG&E indicated it would cost eight to ten times as much per mile to put lines underground, and noted that overhead lines was not an option on heavily populated Alpine Boulevard.
Other Lakeside residents cited health concerns over electromagnetic radiation, dismay over loss of views, fire danger, and loss of property value. One woman expressed concern about eagles, peregrine falcons and other wildlife in the valley. The regional director of the U.S. Hangliding and Parasailing Association warned that the lines would endanger people who use the valley for recreational flights. Another resident noted that local Indians moved to Barona from the valley when El Capitan Dam was built. “There are a lot of Indian sites up there,” she said, citing concern over lost artifacts. “You are ruining ruining one of the prettiest places in the state.”
The utility defended its actions. “There are some people who like the lattice towers. They blend in more,” SDG&E director of special projects Laura McDonald
attested, eliciting groans from the audience. “Others like the steel poles.”
Jody Morgan, a Cedar fire victim, gave emotional testimony. “I lost almost everything,” he said, describing his anguish to learn that Powerlink would obstruct his view of El Capitan and that portions of his property could be taken for the Powerlink project. He presented a computer-generated photo showing what the valley would look like with 150-foot-tall towers. (In fact, the proposed structures could be even taller.) “This is not just our backyard. This is the backyard of tens of thousands of San Diegans who come to take advantage of this view, El Monte Park, and the reservoir,” he said, calling the the project “if not a sin, a crime against nature.”
|Cedar fire survivor Jody Morgan expresses anguish over proposed Powerlink impact on his property and view of El Capitan |
Lakeside Fire Chief Mark Baker testified that his district was never notified, as required when a project that could impact fire safety is proposed. “What specifically is the mitigation of hazards to air and ground crews in the EIR report that we never saw?” he asked. A Cal Fire official seconded the Chief’s concerns. The fire officials acknowledged they shared concerns voiced by a resident who stated, “If you let this be built, planes will not be able to get water out of El Capitan Reservoir. Firefighters will not fight under power lines. Fifteen people died here in the 2003 Cedar Fire…and next time it’s gonna be some of us.”
One fire victim challenged SDG&E spokespersons to take responsibility by putting their names on the towers. “I can’t believe you can look in your soul and pass that down to our children,” he said. “SDG&E is a bad, bad neighbor.”
An SDG&E representative testified that the utility has had discussions with the River Park Foundation and the San Diego River Conservancy about utilizing easements as park-like areas for recreation.
But Lakeside ranch owner Joan Embery, long-time goodwill ambassador for the San Diego Zoo, said she and her husband serve on both boards and had not been contacted by anyone from SDG&E. Embery, who said she has three high-voltage towers on her property, blasted SDG&E for its actions on her ranch. “Helicopters fly regularly at low elevations,” she revealed. “They have set off dynamite without notice when I was riding my horse.” She described finding motor graders blocking access to her ranch, only to be told by a subcontractor that he had a right to drive through her property without notice. “They cut trees down. They put poison around with no notice.
You mean nothing as a homeowner,” Embery said, adding that she has not been compensated for losses. Noting that three SDG&E officials present had passed out business cards that didn’t list their names, she concluded, “So when they tell you that they’re going to talk to you and help you through the process, remember, you have a card with no name.” She also expressed frustration over fuzzy maps, adding that even now, she can’t tell whether the new lines would be on or near her property.
Donna Tisdale, chair of Boulevard’s Planning Group, spoke about her town’s battle to halt Powerlink. “What they’re not saying is that the EIR for the Southern Route was never done properly, and the PUC says the line has the most severe environmental impacts of any power line project ever proposed.”
Tisdale and others are staking hope on litigation filed by environmental and consumer groups including UCAN and the Center for Biodiversity asking the California Supreme Court to halt the project. She urged landowners to lock out SDG&E employees seeking to do pre-construction scouting on their properties.
“Where is our Supervisor?” a resident asked. “Is there anybody from the County here?”
A second public meeting on the issue is slated for next Wednesday, February 25th, from 5 to 8 p.m. Smith asked if CPUC members could attend, addressing SDG&E officials pointedly, “This is just passing the buck.”
Linda Hayes, owner of Hazy Meadow Ranch, called on community members to organized opposition and circulated a sign-up sheet for residents to list e-mail addresses.
“This is not a done deal,” one man said, citing the recall of former Governor Gray Davis and the recent Facebook about-face on grabbing photo copyrights as examples of changes made when people stood up for their rights.
Planner Tom Medritz urged community members to mobilize and oppose the Powerlink project through El Monte Valley. “You are the people,” he concluded, “and you have the power.”