CPUC Plans Major Project That May Destroy Small Businesses and Complicate Commutes, But Won’t Let Mira Mesa Residents and Miramar Businesses Weigh In
By Bari Vaz
What would you do as a small business owner, if you woke up one day to discover that a massive construction project was planned for the area around your business. The project would take more than a year to complete, would close all or part of the street in front of your business for an indeterminate amount of time, and would add to the overwhelming gridlock in the area that is already affecting your commute and that of your employees. Now imagine that no one with the agency in charge of the project would speak with you, or your fellow business owners, or even the city recognized committee that represents your area, to gather input. And it is all completely legal.
This is the nightmare currently facing business owners in the Miramar area of Mira Mesa. The project goes by the name “Sycamore-Peñasquitos 230 Kilovolt Transmission Line Project,” and its purpose is to add capacity to SDG&E’s bulk electric transmission system which has become constrained by the unanticipated early retirement of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
When it was originally proposed in early 2014, the Sycamore-Peñasquitos project was designed to add two new 230 kilovolt transmission lines along a currently existing SDG&E right-of-way. The path began at the Sycamore Canyon substation in the northeast portion of MCAS Miramar, and extended through Scripps Ranch, Poway, and Rancho Peñasquitos to Carmel Valley Rd, underground along Carmel Valley Rd to the San Diego County line (near Via Abertura Rd), then south along existing lines to Peñasquitos Canyon and west to the Peñasquitos substation.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued a “Notice of Preparation,” scheduled three scoping meetings in August, 2014, at the Double Tree Golf Resort in Rancho Peñasquitos, posted notices of the meetings in 31 different locations (none in Mira Mesa or Miramar) and chose the Carmel Mountain, Rancho Peñasquitos, and Poway libraries as repositories for copies of the Scoping Report.
For the next year, the CPUC worked on the Draft Environmental Impact Report, which was issued in September, 2015. Buried inside the DEIR was a surprise: the CPUC had come up with 41 new possible “alternative locations” for the project, including Option 5 called the “Pomerado Road to Miramar Area North Combination Underground/Overhead.” Of the 41 proposed alternative locations, only 5 would be brought forward along with the original proposal for consideration.
Local businesses weren’t the only ones caught off guard. In a letter dated November 16, 2015, SDG&E wrote a response to the CPUC stating “SDG&E conducted a detailed environmental analysis, which found that the Proposed Project would not result in any significant environmental impacts. In the absence of any significant environmental impacts, SDG&E determined that the potential additional costs to customers, environmental impacts, and other challenges associated with additional undergrounding were not warranted and would ultimately not balance all of these factors.”
How much are these “potential additional costs” related to the new alternatives the CPUC created? The estimate is between $54 and $152 million, paid by the ratepayers.
SDG&E continues: “For the reasons described in the attached comments, SDG&E respectfully disagrees with these conclusions in the DEIR. SDG&E did not propose the alternatives identified in the DEIR and did not anticipate that they would be determined to be environmentally superior. We do not believe that the approximate $54 to $152 million additional costs to customers, potential environmental impacts, schedule delays, and other challenges associated with additional undergrounding are warranted for this project.”
So why would the CPUC prefer an alternative estimated to cost $100 million more than the original proposal favored by SDG&E? The answer may lie in the California Environmental Quality Act process. As part of CEQA considerations, the CPUC looks at such impacts as air quality, noise, land use, cultural resources, recreation, and even aesthetics. Two impacts which are NOT required to be considered are traffic (except in the case of a transportation project), and economic damage. CEQA is heavily weighted to impacts common to residential areas, such as those passed through by the original option. It disregards almost completely those impacts common to and most critical in a light industrial area such as Miramar.
Between the release of the Draft EIR in September, 2015, and the Final EIR in March, 2016, the CPUC and SDG&E visited with the Miramar Ranch North Planning Committee, the Rancho Peñasquitos Planning Board, and the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board. Once again, no outreach was made to the Mira Mesa Community Planning Group, which represents the Miramar area that is now the target of the “environmentally superior” Option 5.
The minimum required outreach for the EIR is to send notification to residents and property owners within 300 ft of the proposed project. The CPUC exceeded this distance, sending notices to residents and property owners within 1,000 ft. However, the process is once again heavily weighted in favor of residents over businesses. While all residents received notification through their SDG&E bill, only the property owners in the Miramar area were noticed. For a business park with 30 tenants, NONE of the tenants would receive notice; only the property owner, who in many cases is an LLC or an out-of-area individual or corporation. None of the small businesses along the proposed path through Miramar saw the project coming.
One step that is NOT part of the required outreach is for the CPUC to make a presentation to the recognized Community Planning Group for an affected area. For the originally proposed path of the project, it was not a requirement, but was in their best interest. With all residents of the affected area receiving notice of the project, it would have been politically damaging to avoid the Planning Groups. But for the Miramar area, when the usual CEQA considerations don’t apply and the two major concerns of businesses were not considered as part of the process, there was no incentive to make the outreach and invite possible objections. Perhaps this is why the CPUC avoided presenting to the Mira Mesa Community Planning Group until after it was too late for them to file objections within the legally defined comment period.
The CPUC, or at least their contractors from Panorama Environmental, finally attended a Mira Mesa Community Planning Group meeting on September 19, 2016. The CPUC was not physically present, but one of the Panorama representatives called Billie Blanchard, Project Manager for CPUC, and kept her on the phone during the meeting. The presentation was not an opportunity for the business owners in Miramar to be heard, but rather a presentation by the CPUC on why the project was going to go through their business district and a request to “trust us” that SDG&E will work with businesses to minimize impacts. The reception Panorama received was, to say the least, not friendly.
The last step in the approval process takes place on October 13th, at the Port of Long Beach Harbor Commission Council Chambers. At this meeting, the Commission will vote on whether to accept the proposed decision to select Option 5. Those wishing to comment on the proposed decision must attend the meeting in Long Beach. Not an easy option for hundreds of small business owners, to choose between shutting their business down for the day to attend the meeting, or hoping that a business unfriendly CPUC will suddenly decide that Miramar businesses matter.