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City, SDG&E Spar in Legal Papers

Local leaders want a say in whether the utility can expand a substation next to a San Juan Capistrano neighborhood. A judge agrees.

Just how far did San Diego Gas & Electric go in considering the needs of San Juan Capistrano residents when it proposed a new substation and power lines in the city? Not far enough, a lawyer for the city says.

But the utility's attorney denies those charges.

The two go at it in legal papers filed with the California Public Utilities Commission.

In May, SDG&E submitted plans to revamp a long-existing substation in a San Juan Capistrano residential neighborhood and increase the voltage in lines in South Orange County

Bypassing local control, the utility must seek permission from the PUC in two simultaneous applications: one, a declaration that the project is needed; and two, an environmental review.

San Juan Capistrano city leaders wanted hearings on the project and when the utility applied for a so-called “Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity” without giving the city and others a chance to comment.

The city fired off a letter of protest to be heard on the matter, which an administrative law judge granted in early July. The City Council will get an update of the situation in closed session at Tuesday’s council meeting.

In legal papers arguing for a chance to be heard, the city lobs a number of charges at SDG&E and says a new-and-improved substation should be built in Laguna Niguel or Rancho Mission Viejo.

But SDG&E discounts the city’s claims and says those other substation sites are too expensive for a remodel.

Here’s how some of the issues break down:

Cooperation

“Initially, the city believed that through careful planning and a true spirit of cooperation, the city and SDG&E could work out a project agreeable to both entities,” the city wrote in its bid to be heard. “Clearly, SDG&E prefers to force the city and its impacted residents to participate in adversarial proceedings before the commission rather than to work with the city on a project that the city and its residents can support.”

The city criticized the number of SDG&E outreaches to the community as “merely advocacy and sales pitches,” with no meaningful opportunity to give input and effect change.

SDG&E says that’s not true. Company officials attended 80 meetings with homeowner associations and groups, went door-to-door, distributed materials in both English and Spanish and offered four open houses, the last of which invited guests to come up with a .

San Juan’s Historic Character

According to the city, SDG&E completely failed to consider the historic nature of a town that is home to a just down the street from where the utility wants to raze a on the city’s “buildings of distinction” list.

SDG&E argues that "the former utility structure on the SDG&E Capistrano substation property was not a significant historic resource.” Also, the substation isn’t in the city’s historic downtown and, at best, visitors to Mission San Juan Capistrano may be able to see the two, new, 50-foot buildings off in the distance, the company says.

Alternatives to Building Next to Homes

City officials argue that SDG&E has a number of substations in South Orange County from which to choose to build a super-substation. Better choices would have been in a Laguna Niguel industrial area or the Rancho Mission Viejo project, which currently has no homes.

“Major electric transmission corridors exist just east of the city, and much of the project's area is undeveloped. SDG&E needs to explain why such expansive available areas are not better suited for the bulk of its proposed expansion,” the city papers state.

The utility says it all comes down to price. SDG&E doesn’t own enough land in other spots to build what it wants.

“That alternative was rejected because of increased environmental impacts and its inability to meet the project objective of locating proposed facilities within existing transmission corridors, rights-of-way and utility owned property,” the papers say.

Undergrounding

If the utility has to build new power lines next to homes, it should consider putting more of its facilities underground, the city argues.

“SDG&E's application demonstrates its willingness to sacrifice aesthetic values over economic values because it willingly proposes to underground facilities near newly approved communities in the adjacent City of San Clemente while it will triple in size and scale facilities within well-established communities and the downtown core in the city of San Juan Capistrano,” the city wrote.

But SDG&E replied that only a small portion of lines near Camp Pendleton, not San Clemente, will be placed underground, as well as a small portion near the next to .

Mostly, it’s about price again.

“SDG&E has a responsibility to also propose the least cost, least environmentally damaging project,” the utility argues. “SDG&E engineers estimate that undergrounding of transmission facilities costs eight to 10 times more per mile than overhead construction; that significant cost differential cannot be simply ignored by SDG&E.”

Jim Reardon August 07, 2012 at 08:39 PM
SDG&E's idea of public outreach is to hire a professional Public Affairs firm (Faubel), who in turn hires the local editor of the Capistrano Dispatch newspaper and host of Coffee Chat to run a PR campaign to persuade the gullible locals that the utility is "doing the right thing." We should be so lucky. The City's lawyers got it right. SDG&E is running roughshod over the residents of this community and they need to adopt a different approach. Sadly, none of this was even necessary. Spending PR money to co-sponsor a few evening community events doesn't mask the arrogance that is on display here. Filing a Negative Declaration and Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity? While they've been smiling and serving us barbecue in the park, the actual plan is to bypass environmental review, cut the locals out of the planning process altogether, co-opt our Chamber of Commerce and form false advocacy groups at the first sign of trouble. By the time they get something approved, that "10 times more per mile" is going to look like a bargain. Keep in mind, we're not talking about the whole transmission system -- just the part that runs through our neighborhoods!
Rhen Kohan August 08, 2012 at 04:32 PM
I entirely support 100% Mr. Reardon's depiction of SDG&E's handling of this project. SDG&E was all nice and smiling until they filed the Certificate of Public Convenience and then the canine teeth were bared - no friendliness, no community relations anymore - the gloves came off. To foist this project upon our community is heart breaking. It could have been handled in a myriad of ways but no, SDG&E chose deliberately to jam it down the throat of San Juan Capistrano. SDG&E deserves to lose this entire project here, should be made to locate it elsewhere. Make it a dog park and put these really bad memories behind our town.
Tim Hocking August 09, 2012 at 06:55 AM
When SDG&E had the open house to select a design theme for the new substation, they had already submitted their design plan to the utilities commission.

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