When workers from San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) cut chains on a gate and demanded that vehicles be moved on a ranch in the 3300 block of Gird Road so they could begin work on the property, the owners said they were “stunned” as they have pending legal action in process with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) against the utility giant.
Ann Leatherbury says she is frustrated with what she calls misrepresentation on the part of SDG&E concerning the change-out of eight wooden electric poles to the new tubular steel type on her family’s property as part of SDG&E’s Orange Grove Transmission Enhancement Project and Pala to Monserate Wood-to-Steel Pole Project.
Leatherbury, the daughter of Ed and Eunice Lowell, who established the 200-acre family ranch in 1959, said because of what the project has become, “[her family’s] property will be irreparably damaged for current and future generations.”
SDG&E communications manager April Bolduc says the company is improving an eight-mile electrical transmission line in order to allow the newly-installed Orange Grove Power Plant located in the Interstate 15 corridor to “run at full capacity” and is within their right to do so, given a 50-year old easement they have on the property and approval by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).
“[The project] was approved by the CPUC on Nov. 19, 2010, with the condition that SDG&E remain within the existing easement on the disputed property and SDG&E is remaining in the current easement,” said Bolduc.
Leatherbury, on the other hand, claims that the easement SDG&E says it possesses has never been proven in “acceptable” legal form to be a transmission easement, does not appear in a title search on the property, and that the company has refused her family’s offer to establish a “valid” legal easement so that the poles could be located along the northern boundary of the property in order to be less invasive and preserve the property’s value. In addition, Leatherbury has claimed that the size of the new steel poles being installed are not what SDG&E has represented them to be, and that the project is not primarily for fire safety as promoted at times, but rather to increase power capability to serve increased growth in the Fallbrook area.
Territory served map (click to enlarge map below)
The easement Leatherbury said SDG&E presented as proof of right-of-way to the CPUC “was a handwritten note from one of the utility company workers,” not a signed legal document from her parents. The Leatherburys said one of SDG&E’s attorneys told them back in April of last year that “if [SDG&E] had to prove they had a legal easement [to change transmission lines] they’d have difficulty doing it.”
“For this particular property, SDG&E has had easement rights for more than 50 years and had poles on the property for those same 50 years,” said Bolduc.
In response to their offer of a new, legal easement, Ann’s husband, Chuck Leatherbury, said an SDG&E representative told them the company was moving forward with the project, but that the family can “underground the line in the future at their own expense” – at a cost of between 5 and 6 million dollars. That figure gave the Leatherbury’s an idea of what they consider to be the amount their property is being devalued by.
“We agree with the SDG&E minimum estimate of five to six million dollars as the cost of devaluation of the property and [now] seek compensation to expand the easement to allow this project,” said Chuck.
However, legal counsel from SDG&E parent company Sempra Energy disagreed with the Leatherburys.
“SDG&E’s representatives did not provide any minimum devaluation estimate to you, and your property cannot be devalued by the exercise of property rights provided under transmission and distribution easements that have been in place for 50 years,” Andrew Cheung wrote in an email to Chuck Leatherbury. Cheung added that SDG&E would be “willing to discuss reasonable alternatives during the construction period” but Leatherbury said no such thing has taken place.
The Leatherburys also said the new steel poles are not what they were initially reported to be.
“[SDG&E] told us [the steel poles] would be ‘like for like’ with the old wooden ones when it came to size and that is not the case,” said Ann. “They are immensely larger and taller; much bigger than the original specifications.”
The Leatherburys also said they have not received an acceptable answer as to why 90-foot poles are being installed on their property when it is indicated that 69-foot poles will be installed across the street. They also claim that there appears to be no oversight on that matter by the CPUC.
“The ability of SDG&E to fit the proposed taller poles (up to 90 feet) and cross-arms within 12 feet lacks adequate oversight to ensure compliance,” Chuck said. “In our discussion with SDG&E they have said that the ‘burden and cost’ will be [the family’s] to monitor and/or dispute that construction stays within 12 feet. This puts undue financial hardship on us.”
Because the family was concerned at the beginning about the change-out project, they have dialogued with both SDG&E and the CPUC. After having discovered what they called “conflicting” information, Ann said Chuck has been dealing with both entities’ legal departments in hopes of resolving the issues to both her family’s and SDG&E’s satisfaction.
On Nov. 22, the Leatherburys filed an Application for Rehearing pertaining to CPUC Resolution E-4373 on behalf of the Leatherbury Family Trust and Lowell Family Trust, citing discrepancies they felt had not been addressed prior to the CPUC giving SDG&E permission to move forward with the project.
“[SDG&E] has been so intentionally misleading; it’s criminal that these people send in reports [to the CPUC] that are wrong,” Chuck said.
As it stands, the application for a rehearing was filed two months before SDG&E began any work on the project. The Leatherburys marked their request for the rehearing as “timely.” However, SDG&E began work Jan. 26 and has been pushing forward in a timely manner to complete the pole conversions on the family’s property.
“[SDG&E] will be on this particular property off and on for a couple of months,” said Bolduc.
When asked about the status of the Application for Rehearing, the CPUC indicated a decision is not likely before the work is finished.
“The [CPUC] is reviewing the rehearing application; a decision is anticipated in late spring or early summer,” said Mary Jo Borak, who works in the Transmission & Environmental Permitting division of the CPUC.
In an effort to try and put a halt to SDG&E’s plans to start the project before the CPUC can levy a decision, the Leatherbury’s also filed a Motion for Injunction/Stay against the utility company on Dec. 22 citing that “SDG&E is engaged in activity that presents imminent and irreparable harm to the property in dispute…” The CPUC has not issued any decision on that request either.
“The Commission is reviewing the motion,” said Borak, who acknowledged that the CPUC is aware that SDG&E has moved forward with the work on the property.
Bolduc said SDG&E is not required to respond to the Motion for Injunction/Stay until Feb. 22.
“SDG&E will be filing a formal response to the motion for injunction by the CPUC ordered deadline of Feb. 22, 2011,” Bolduc said.
“SDG&E is rushing to finish it before a decision is rendered,” Ann said.
The CPUC sent a representative to the Lowell Ranch last week and that individual invited SDG&E representatives to join him, Ann reported. Ann said she felt “uncomfortable” with the situation because it appeared “they were working together against us.”
“You look to the CPUC to help look out for your rights with utility companies,” said Ann. “Then, they show up and acted like they are buddies with SDG&E. I don’t know what to do.”
Ann said she has regularly felt “overpowered” and “outnumbered,” and does know where else to turn for help.
“I made a call to [County] Supervisor Bill Horn’s office and they sent someone out here when SDG&E and the CPUC showed up,” she said. “I had heard that Bill Horn was very pro-property rights and so far his office is the only one that appears to be listening to us. His representative, Lawrence Hirsch, was very nice to us.”
“I went out on behalf of the County but found that this situation is really outside the County’s jurisdiction,” explained Hirsch. “All the concerns exist on private property, not in county right-of-way areas so this dispute is going to have to be resolved between the property owners and SDG&E with input from the CPUC.”
To further complicate the matter, Ann explained that prior to SDG&E’s work on the property the family ranch had been put on the market for sale so that her parents’ legacy could be distributed amongst all the heirs, but given what’s happened, it “makes [the land] less attractive to buyers.”
“Real estate experts have advised us that irreparable damage will be done to the property and the nature and character of the property will be completely changed with the installation of the large and clearly visible steel poles,” Chuck said.
Ann said she feels that she is fighting a “losing battle” against a “deep-pocket utility giant with a team of in-house legal counselors at their disposal.”
“We don’t have that kind of money – to engage in a long, complicated legal battle with these big companies, but my main concern is who they are going to run over next, and that will undoubtedly be the other people who live off Gird Road, like those in the Sycamore Ranch housing area,” she said, adding that she insisted SDG&E hold a community meeting in the area when this project first became public.
“The Sycamore Ranch residents voiced their concern at that meeting about how this would all be handled and what it would look like; wait until they see what reality is and how it’s going to impact the views from their homes; it’s everyone’s worst nightmare,” said Ann, adding that she would welcome any neighboring property owners to visit her family’s ranch and see the new poles.
“I want Fallbrook residents to come look at these poles; it’s a huge aesthetic change and these people say it isn’t,” said Ann. “I don’t think anybody has any idea what impact this has. SDG&E presented it simply to be a change from wood to metal, because if it were to be any different [in size] it would have to go under environmental review. It is different and it has not been subjected to environmental review.”
Chuck Tillotson, a homeowner in Sycamore Ranch, attended SDG&E’s community meeting in 2009 and has seen what is transpiring on the Lowell family ranch property.
“It looks to me like they are not only adding newer taller poles but larger cross arms; it’s just like the problem we had in 2007 when they added more lines; they just came out and did it.” Tillotson said he was especially displeased because when SDG&E came out to install new poles in 2007, they assured homeowners the old ones would be removed.
“That never happened; to this day we still have two poles,” Tillotson said, making him resigned that the next installation will bring “even greater blight” to his property.
“Regarding the new wood-to-steel project, SDG&E has told the CPUC they will remove the ‘old’ poles within 60 to 90 days, so based on their history, I’m sure we’ll end up at that point with three poles,” Tillotson said.
And despite the property owners’ concerns, the project continues to move forward.
“[SDG&E] will continue to work on these and other pole replacements as part of an overall effort to help improve the reliability and integrity of the electric system, particularly in areas of high fire risk,” said Bolduc. “Since last year, SDG&E has been reaching out to the community and residents along the existing easement to ensure they understand the project and work with customers to minimize any inconvenience during construction.” The Leatherburys don’t agree.
“The presumption is that SDG&E is trying to usurp the power and authority of the CPUC by erecting new steel poles before the CPUC can take action on the Request for Rehearing…” Chuck said.
“I am so frustrated,” Ann said.
Tillotson isn’t optimistic about the Leatherbury’s plight against the utility company.
“What you see is what you are going to get; it’s like they are saying ‘go away and don’t bother us; get out of our face,’” Tillotson said. “You can’t seem to get anything out of them until it’s done. And this [project] will make a negative visual impact on our community.”
Farmers in Southern California recommend that property owners work together with neighbors to ask the utility company to justify what it is trying to do before it starts the project, to react fast and be prepared to have the staying power for a long fight.
CPUC Information Officer Susan Carothers said the commission evaluates transmission siting via a public process that can involve public hearings, and that the commission invites public participation.
“Anyone who feels the utility is not serving them properly may also file a complaint with us,” Carothers said.
Information about filing a complaint may be found online at www.cpuc.ca.gov/PUC/CEC/e_complaint/. People may telephone 800-649-7570 or write to: CPUC, 505 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94102, attention: Consumer Affairs Bureau.
SDG&E has absolutely no respect for property owners. They provide a lot of lip service. This project of wooden poles to steel is joke. Take a look at the project in Santa Ysabel, they (SDG&E) have the place crawling with environmentalist and biologist, invading the privacy of the property owners and costing the rate payers millions. Then SDG&E took their trucks and crews and are tearing up the land, leaving it forever damaged with lasting problems for the property owners. When someone complains they send out a rep who does absolutely NOTHING to solve the issues. Bottom line, SDG&E only cares about money. Good luck to this family, be careful, you are dealing with a VERY unethical company.