Several dozen San Juan Capistrano residents and city officials raised alarms Wednesday at a meeting with the California Public Utilities Commission about a massive new electricity project.
At issue is a $500-million SDG&E upgrade that would triple the size and drastically increase capacity of a transmission station near historic downtown San Juan, add high-capacity transmission lines into San Clemente and transmission lines around the Talega Substation at the end of Pico there.
Designed to increase service and reliability to meet growing demand in south Orange County, the SDG&E project is up for environmental review. Wednesday's meeting was one of the PUC's first sessions to collect feedback on the project from residents, agencies and businesses.
(The next meeting is at the Bella Collina Towne and Golf Club in San Clemente at 6:30 p.m.)
Although business leaders were largely in favor of the project, the city and residents expressed grave concerns.
The objections ranged from historical and aesthetic concerns to health and property value worries. Also at issue was traffic. The project could add to traffic snarls in downtown San Juan created by forthcoming Ortega widening and a Caltrans interchange projects.
Some residents expressed fears about electromagnetic fields, although the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences says there is little health risk to living under power lines.
Rhen Kohan worried about her property values, the potential demolition of the historic 1918 station building currently housing components along Camino Capistrano, and the proximity of all the lines and breakers to downtown and neighborhoods.
"For those supporters of this project who might pooh pooh this kind of input, I'm in favor of progress and a supportive environment for business, but not with a boot on my face," she said.
Kohan may have been referring to concerns voiced by the city of San Juan Capistrano in legal documents criticizing SDG&E for going straight to state authorities for project approval rather than seeking local consensus, though the CPUC is the only authority with final approval.
Grant Taylor, San Juan's development services director, also slammed the project at the meeting.
"We have some very serious concerns," he said.
Taylor cited historic preservation, aesthetics, light pollution, construction staging and traffic. He said he wanted the environmental report to closely examine alternative locations for the San Juan switching station.
"Probably most important to us is alternatives," Taylor said. "This is a regional project."
City Attorney Hans Van Ligten echoed that theme in documents submitted on behalf of the city.
He urged the CPUC to consider the "possible relocation of all, or at least a part of the facility."
Van Ligten also said potentially bulldozing the existing station building to put up imitation historic buildings clashed with historic structure guidelines issued by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
"A faux historical building is worse than a modern building," he said. "It's not supposed to be a Disneyland historical building, and that's what this is. It's a poor proposal."
John Gillotti, a local restaurateur, endorsed the project, despite concerns about aesthetic effects on San Juan's downtown. He made the analogy to his restaurant: When he bought it, most of the upgrades were to internal, vital infrastructure the customers never saw.
"Without proper infrastructure, you cannot function," he said. "I believe the project is appropriate and well-placed."
Mark Bodenhamer, who heads up the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
"Right now, if something happened out at the Talega Substation, we could go weeks without power," he said. "It's critical for our organizations to have reliable power."
The La Pata Connector Connection
Harry Persaud of OC Public Works is the lead engineer on the project to build an arterial road connecting Avenida La Pata in San Clemente to Orange County's inland arterial system through San Juan.
At the meeting, he pointed out the road project and several miles of the transmission lines in the SDG&E project run parallel and their construction schedules overlap.
"Cooperation must continue," he told PUC officials and consultants. "Make sure the [environmental report] is comprehensive enough. There are impacts to county facilities and county projects. The designs of both projects need to be coordinated to endure the greatest efficiency in construction."
Persaud said the La Pata connector construction was set to begin this year. PUC officials said the environmental report for the SDG&E project wouldn't be finished for 12 to 18 months.