The California Coastal Commission has approved the permit San Diego Gas & Electric needs to move the South Bay Substation farther south on Bay Boulevard in Chula Vista.
The vote, which was held Thursday in the Long Beach Council Chambers, was unanimous.
But the development permit approval came with several conditions — most notably a change to SDG&E's project proposal that calls for the Bayfront Enhancement Fund Alternative. The alternative would, in part, require more undergrounding of 1,000 feet of 138-kilovolt transmission lines feeding the substation.
SDG&E will now have to return to the California Public Utilities Commission — which approved the project in October without the enhancement — to approve the change.
The utility was granted its development permit while the additional line undergrounding is decided at the PUC. In original drafts, the condition had required PUC approval of the new line undergrounding before a coastal development permit could be issued, but a resolution was met to prevent a delay.
A second portion of the alternative was also required by the commissioners for SDG&E to provide a combined $2.5 million in funding to the Living Coast Discovery Center and operations of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the Salt Works Property. That portion was left out of the conditions recommended by Coastal Commission staff, but added to the conditions by Commissioner Greg Cox.
Cox, who also sits on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, said the project is "a very good compromise."
"In some respects, I'd like to see everything undergrounded," Cox said. "I'd love to see all the utility lines down; I'd like to see all the billboards down; I'd like to open up the view corridors. But I think this project has gone above and beyond what can be reasonably expected."
The commissioners rejected a separate proposal, offered by Inland Industries, to include the undergrounding of up to 1,000 additional feet of 230-kilovolt transmission line, which would be reconfigured to connect to the new substation. Inland Industries owns land across the street from the proposed build site on Bay Boulevard.
Ahead of the vote, Ben Vallejos, the executive director for the Living Coast Discovery Center, said the funding aspect of the enhancement alternative will provide "critical funding for programs and visitor-serving amenities." It would provide direct access to the bay and education programs on San Diego Bay's ecosystem, he said. The center's struggle to stay operational last year on available funding heightened the stakes of the Bayfront Enhancement Fund Alternative's inclusion in the SDG&E project.
"The Living Coast Discovery center is a natural treasure on San Diego Bay, and provides a rare waterfront experience on the National Wildlife Refuge," Vallejos said. "Any fund alternative funds directed to the Living Coast Discovery Center as a condition of this permit would be placed in an interest-bearing endowment that would provide long-term sustainable support in expanding visitor-serving programs on the bay."
Chula Vista City Councilwoman Pat Aguilar also addressed the commissioners before the vote, asking them to question whether all had been done, even with the conditions, to make the project the best possible. While agreeing that the chosen site for the new substation is the best choice, she disagreed with the staff recommendation to limit additional undergrounding and not call for a lower-profile design of the facility.
"Can we do better than this?" Aguilar asked, saying the commissioners should also ask how urgent the need is, in comparison to the time needed to come out with what she said is a better result.
"We can do better than this," Aguilar continued. "I say that because of examples of other substations that I've seen in other parts of the country. Despite the testimony I just heard from the (California Independent Systems Operator) representative, I think there's a darn good reason to delay.
"I support relocating the substation. The question is, when you look at the visuals of what this thing is going to look like, haven't we — the city of Chula Vista — simply torn down the power plant to replace it with another industrial icon on our bayfront?"
A few commissioners showed concerns of moving forward without the 230-kilovolt line undergrounding, despite eventually deciding to do that.
"I am concerned that not undergrounding these lines is missing an opportunity," Commissioner Wendy Mitchell said.
Attorney John Moot, of Schwartz Semerdjian Ballard & Cauley LLP and a representative for Inland Industries, said the decision wasn't a total loss for advocates of more undergrounding. It was clear they received half of what they wanted, he said. But he expressed disappointment in Cox, who he said should have fought for the larger undergrounding proposal since he's the sole representative on the commission from the San Diego region.
"Why did he think he had to compromise?" Moot questioned. "Does he compromise on other coastal issues?"
Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox, who is the wife of Commissioner Greg Cox, issued a statement after the decision.
“The approval for SDG&E’s substation relocation project is evidence that hard work and deliberation among staff from the city of Chula Vista, Port of San Diego, SDG&E and the Coastal Commission has further strengthened the vision for Chula Vista’s waterfront," Cox said. "Success on this major element of the plan establishes additional undergrounding of power lines, provides funding for the Living Coast Discovery Center and nature preservation, creates certainty for development of new parks and serves as a catalyst for the vitalization of our portion of San Diego Bay.”