Power play on Chula Vista’s bayfront

When the South Bay power plant came crumbling down, who imagined what might rise up in its place less than a half mile away.

The California Coastal Commission is set to act on SDG&E’s application to build a new bulk power substation on the Chula Vista bayfront atop a building pad from 16 to 23 feet above the coastline. The substation station will include a 75-foot-high communication tower and eight large 69-foot A-frames connecting a crisscross of power lines and poles over 100 feet high.

Standing between the residents of Chula Vista and another potential iconic eyesore on their bayfront is the Coastal Commission and its mandate to protect the scenic quality of our coastline. The showdown could be one for the ages.

With their deep pockets and cadre of government relations personnel, there are few entities in the state more powerful than the investor-owned utilities with virtual monopolies in their service territory. With its clear legislative mandate and history of strong leadership, the Coastal Commission has been unwavering in its protection of the state’s scenic coastal areas. Yet the outcome of this standoff is far from clear.

When SDG&E acquired the substation site from the Port District, no height limit was placed on the property despite the surrounding parcels all having a 45-foot height limit. When the Chula Vista City Council initially passed its Local Coastal Plan, it specifically stated that all high-voltage transmission lines be placed underground, but this was changed to more general language before being sent to the Coastal Commission for certification.

Despite these early victories, SDG&E faces the obvious challenge that what they propose is simply not compatible with a scenic coastline. After public hearings and advocacy by an adjacent property owner, additional undergrounding of transmission lines and a lower profile were proposed to address the visual blight. Yet, SDG&E has held firm maintaining that this is their standard design and they cannot deviate from it without jeopardizing reliability.

Municipal-owned utilities in other cities have built substations under parks or enclosed them within buildings, effectively hiding them in plain sight without jeopardizing reliability. SDG&E itself proposes a new low-profile substation in San Juan Capistrano using different technology, enclosing the most visually objectionable parts for a similar substation project. And, herein lays the rub. What SDG&E shows is possible in one community apparently is not in another.

But the Coast Act does not discriminate. While the Coastal Commission usually does not hesitate to require mitigation for visual impacts, SDG&E is a formidable applicant and very much used to getting its way with agencies who seek to regulate it.

Public Utilities Commissioner Mark Ferron, on his retirement, expressed his concerns over the investor-owned utilities’ commitment to the regulatory compact stating “their strategy is often ‘we will give the Commission only what they explicitly order us to give them.’” Good advice for the Coastal Commission if Chula Vista is to avoid another iconic eyesore on its bayfront.

Moot is partner and land-use attorney at Schwartz Semerdjian, representing a property owner on the Chula Vista bayfront, and served on the Chula Vista City Council from 1994 to 2000.

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