Even after several 200-foot high electrical transmission towers have been erected in the utility corridor that runs through Chino Hills, the California Public Utilities Commission last week signaled a willingness to reconsider its 2009 decision to approve the placement of the so-called Tehachapi Power Line through the heart of that upscale community.
In seeking to meet state-mandated renewable energy goals, Edison undertook the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, which is intended to generate at least 1,500 megawatts of power from new windmills to be erected within a 50-square mile windfield in the Tehachapi area, one that is to be three times the size of any existing wind farm in the United States.
To convey that power to the urbanized population centers of Los Angeles and Orange counties, Southern California Edison is utilizing its existing power corridors and easements, including a long-existing but less intensely used corridor through Chino Hills.
Chino Hills, where homes typically list in the $400,000 range even in the currently down real estate market, is the most densely populated area through which the transmission lines will span. Chino Hills residents, convinced the power lines represent a negative impact on both their quality of life and property values, resisted the imposition of the corridor. But despite the expenditure of $2.4 million by the city in that legal, lobbying and procedural effort, the project has been allowed to proceed. In September, the city redoubled its effort, despite a string of recent legal and procedural setbacks that seemingly provided Edison with the clearance to begin erecting the towers.
Even as the towers were going up, city officials and other legislative and professional advocates importuned the California Public Utilities Commission, which has shed three of the members who voted to give the project go-ahead more than two years ago, to revisit that decision. A special effort was made with the chairman of the commission, John Peevey, whom Chino Hills officials invited to town to actually look at the towers and their overbearing proximity to the city’s residential neighborhoods.
On October 19, the commission ordered a temporary halt to the project over an issue unrelated to the city’s protests when Peevey noted during his tour of the city that Edison had not included red lights on the towers to ensure their visibility to low-flying aircraft. That temporary halt was set to conclude upon Edison showing that it had made provision to install red lights on the towers and orange marker balls on the lines.
The city then followed up on October 31 with an application for a rehearing and motion for partial stay of the 2009 decision.
In response, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) extended the tower construction stay and directed Southern California Edison to offer an alternative route for the transmission line through or around Chino Hills within 60 days.
In a public statement, Peevey said the commission had asked Edison to produce by January 10 a study relating to the feasibility and costs of an alternative route.
Peevey specifically mentioned the possibility of a route along an existing utility corridor through Chino Hills State Park, which city officials had previously proposed but which the CPUC and Edison had rejected. Peevey further noted four other potential mitigation measures that would make the line’s presence less imposing, including undergrounding the lines, utilizing other routes through the city or the state park, usage of the existing right-of-way with more and shorter towers, and lessening the impact of the line by other means.
“I have visited Chino Hills and seen the construction first-hand,” Peevey said. “The California Public Utilities Commission has heard from Chino Hills residents who are unhappy with the transmission towers running through their city in extremely close proximity to homes.”
In the presence of Chino Hills officials when he was touring the city in October, Peevey said that being able to actually see the 200-foot towers had given him a new perspective.
The last-ditch effort to prevent the city from being saddled with the towers also included lobbying of CPUC officials by state Assemblyman Kurt Hagman, a former Chino Hills mayor and state Senator Bob Huff.
The CPUC’s stay of the towers’ construction and the request for alternatives was the first real inroad the city has achieved in resisting Edison’s imposition of the project on the community, despite the expenditure of $2.4 million in that effort.
Previously, City Hall and Hagman requested that officials in Sacramento do something to deliver them from the burden of the transmission lines traversing their community, including the proposal to reroute a span of the power transmission line through Chino Hills State Park. After that concept was shot down and the public utilities commission approved the line in most respects as Edison proposed it, Hagman introduced legislation, AB 2662, a bill that would have prohibited an electrical corporation from constructing substantially larger transmission towers in an easement intended for smaller transmission towers when the easement runs through an occupied residential area. That bill died at the committee stage.
The city of Chino Hills then sued Edison last year, claiming the company had “overburdened” the easements. That effort failed when West Valley Superior Court Judge Keith D. Davis ruled the California Public Utilities Commission has exclusive jurisdiction regarding the route used by Edison and that the matter fell entirely out of the Superior Court’s purview. After Davis threw the suit out, Chino Hills appealed Davis’s ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal, asserting the city has the right to have the case heard by a jury because the Public Utilities Commission did not employ a standard set of guidelines in approving the placement of the Tehachapi line project, allowing the imperative of completing the transmission line to facilitate the wind power project to take precedence over policy and safety and aesthetic guidelines, which should have been considered and adhered to as part of the approval process.
But on September 12, a three-member panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal consisting of associate justices Betty Richli, Carol Dodrington and Jeff King turned back the challenge and affirmed Davis’ 2010 Superior Court decision, ruling that the California Public Utilities Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over property rights issues between the city and Edison.
In the light of that string of setbacks for the city, Mike Fleager, Chino Hills city manager, said that the CPUC’s action in staying the construction and calling for Edison to revisit its siting scheme for the towers through Chino Hills is the most promising development yet.
“We think it is very significant that the PUC is taking the time to review the existing approved project and requiring Edison to review previously submitted alternative routes and other options such as undergrounding and erecting more but shorter poles,” Fleager said. “We are looking forward to those determinations until such time as it is resolved, especially given the city’s request, while Edison has the project on hold to come into compliance with the FAA requirements for the lights on the towers and orange balls on the wires, to further stay the project to examine our concerns.”
Of major consideration, Fleager said, was the height of the towers. He said that one of the proposed alternatives entailed shorter poles in larger numbers that would maintain the line at the same height above the ground, he said, “to keep the wires taught so they don’t sag. With the towers, the wires dip in the middle.”
Maintaining the wires at a given height is an issue because of the need to keep the surrounding electrical field well above residences or areas that will be inhabited by people. Studies done in Scandinavia related to the proximity of high tension electrical lines and their accompanying electromagnetic fields to the populace showed a correlation to elevated levels of blood cancer and leukemia in school children.
Fleager said it was not yet determined who would bear the cost of moving the already erected towers.
“One of things that I assume will come out of this is the cost and the timing associated with any alternatives,” Fleager said. “The PUC wants to understand the impacts on cost to Edison and delays this will mean. That is part of the analysis. We don’t know where that is going to go, but we are looking forward to the results of Edison’s study.”