Administrative Judge Rules Against Chino Hills Line Undergrounding

(June 14) Administrative Law Judge Jean Vieth this week delivered a crushing blow to the city of Chino Hills and residents there advocating the undergrounding of high-voltage powerlines through that city.
In 2009, the California Public Utilities Commission, over the city of Chino Hills’ protest, granted Southern California Edison clearance to erect a series of 197-foot high power transmission towers through the heart of the upscale, 44.7-square mile city at the extreme southwest corner of San Bernardino County along a long-existing power corridor easement owned by the utility.
That line is intended to facilitate the Tehachapi Renewable Energy Project to connect what is planned as the world’s largest windfarm, consisting of thousands of electricity-producing windmills in Kern County, with the Los Angeles metropolitan basin.
Fearing a host of problems from the imposition of the towers, including significant negative impacts on property values in the city, the Chino Hills City Council authorized the expenditure of millions of dollars of taxpayer money to employ attorneys and make other efforts to contest the Public Utility Commission’s action, including filing suit against Southern California Edison, alleging the company had “overburdened” the power line easements. That legal 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 the suit was thrown out. Chino Hills appealed Davis’s ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal, asserting the city had the right to have the case heard by a jury, but in September 2011 the appeals court affirmed Davis’ decision.
In 2011, Edison, which has long had a 150-foot wide right-of-way for its power lines that runs for 5.8 miles from Tonner Canyon to the Riverside County line, erected 18 of the towers within Chino Hills before a city appeal to the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Public Utilities Commission Chairman Michael Peevey in particular succeeded in obtaining a temporary halt to the towers’ construction in November 2011 while a potential undergrounding alternative was explored for 3.5 miles of the roughly five miles over which electrical lines are to transit the city. Early last year, a determination was made that the lines would remain above ground through that section of Chino Hills known as Oak Tree Downs, primarily because the topography of the land, which includes rolling hills, would render undergounding prohibitively expensive.
Simultaneously, Vieth was designated as the arbiter of still-remaining issues between the utility company and the city and its undergrounding advocates.
In her decision released on June 11 Vieth weighed in with her analysis of the matter, which relates to the city’s request to force Southern California Edison to install the line below ground the 3.5 mile span from the end of Eucalyptus Avenue  to Pipeline Avenue and the 71 Freeway.
Vieth, in taking up the petition and determining it “should be considered on the merits,” nevertheless rejected the city’s request to have Edison de-erect the towers in favor of a single circuit double cable line along that length of the  Tehachapi line through Chino Hills, which is known as Segment 8A.
“Proposed Decision denies the city of Chino Hills’ petition for modification of Decision (D.) 09-12-044 regarding Segment 8A of the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project,” Vieth wrote. “The proposed decision finds that while underground construction of a single circuit, two cables per phase design is feasible and could be completed on a timely basis, the cost is prohibitive and should not be borne by ratepayers at large for the benefit of the city and its residents. The proposed decision concludes that actual cost of undergrounding would be either a low of about $268 million (without reactive compensation) or a high of about $296 million (with reactive compensation).”
Previously, Chino Hills said it was willing to contribute $70.45 million to $76.7 million to offset Southern California Edison’s costs in carrying out the undergrounding. That contribution, the city said, would include real property that is necessary for the construction of an underground transmission line which the city is prepared to convey to SCE in fee; future  revenue which the city would have derived which will now be available to SCE through ownership of such properties; increased expenses that the city will incur due to its loss of the use of the contributed properties; and costs associated with the landscaping and maintenance of those properties that are located in the right-of-way.
The proposed decision does not assign a value to Chino Hills’ proposed real property offset but concludes that the actual value is a much more modest amount than Chino Hills’ estimate.
“As petitioner, Chino Hills has the burden of proof to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that its petition, filed October 28, 2011, should be granted; accordingly, Chino Hills must show that the design approved for Segment 8A should be changed to require construction of Chino Hills’ preferred alternative instead,” Vieth wrote. “Because we find that Segment 8A is not dissimilar from several other sections along the project route and that undergrounding Segment 8A at ratepayer expense is not reasonable, Chino Hills’ petition, filed October 28, 2011, should be denied. Because we deny the October 28, 2011, petition, Chino Hills’ subsequent petition (the additional request for a stay), filed October 31, 2011, should be denied also. The construction stay on Segment 8A should be released. This order should be effective immediately to avoid delay in completion of the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project.”
Vieth provided some of the calculations that went into her decision for denial, stating that the cost benefit ratio was too lopsided. “On a per mile basis, these estimates represent a high approaching $85 million per mile and a low approaching $77 million per mile,” she stated. Along the 3.5 mile span, according to Vieth, 220 houses were directly impacted by the towers. The cost of sparing them from the visual blight of the towers would essentially exceed the cost of the homes themselves. “For each of the 220 houses that borders the right-of-way, the cost is on the order of $1.2-$1.3 million per house,” according to Vieth.
Vieth, while serving as the administrative law judge on the case, does not have final say in the matter.  On the same day Vieth’s decision was publicly released, the Public Utlities Commission also released an alternative proposed decision by PUC President Michael Peevey which endorses Chino Hills’ remaining request for 3.5 miles of the single circuit line  to be buried below ground.
Peevey’s  alternate proposed decision  stood in stark contrast to  Vieth’s ruling, and differed by at least $46 million in its cost analysis.    Peevey estimated the undergrounding  cost  at $224 million.
A thirty-day comment period is to now ensue. The full California Public Utilities Commission Board, of which Peevey is a voting member, will take up the issue on July 11 and render a final, binding ruling as early as that date and no later than July 30.
Bob Goodwin, the leader of the Chino Hills-based group Hope For The Hills, which was instrumental in lobbying the PUC to revisit the undergrounding issue, was able to find a silver lining in Vieth’s ruling.
“The California Public Utilities Commission issued two contrasting proposed decisions in the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project (TRTP),” he told the Sentinel. “The full commission will determine which decision becomes effective following a vote at the commission meeting on July 11, 2013,” Goodwin said. “CPUC Administrative Law Judge Jean Vieth issued her proposed decision, which would lift the stay on construction of the partially completed overhead lines within Chino Hills and allow the line to be completed as originally approved by the CPUC in 2009. The judge noted the high cost to ratepayers of the proposal to underground the lines and the fact that the overhead transmission lines are close to residences in other portions of the TRTP project.
“While we were not surprised by her conclusion, we feel she made two significant points: 1) underground construction is feasible and 2) project could be completed on time,” Goodwin continued. “Judge Vieth did her job given the scope of the original petition she was ruling on.  Also included in the documents is a alternate proposed decision drafted by Michael Peevey which grants the city of Chino Hills’ petition and orders SCE to construct an underground system. He sites two main reasons: 1) unfair burden imposed on Chino Hills and its residents and 2) the project is contrary to community values. He concluded that based on this and the estimated cost it warrants undergrounding.”
Goodwin sounded confident the entire Public Utilities Commission Bboard will go with Peevey’s proposal rather than Vieth’s.
“While this does not finalize anything, we feel strongly that with Mr. Peevey’s alternate proposal and Administrative Law Judge Vieth’s comments, our foot is a little further in the door. This matter is not over by any means and no one should feel we have won anything. We still have work to do and are prepared to see this to the victorious end.”

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